TOTAL (Turnaround Opportunities Through Active Learning) Facilitator Sara Vercher in a Spring Branch ISD TOTAL program classroom Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, in Houston. TOTAL (Turnaround Opportunities Through Active Learning), is an innovative type of alternative school for students with mental health challenges in the district. Photo: James Nielsen, Houston Chronicle
SBISD’s System of Care focus on student mental health issues and a partnership with Harris Center for Mental Health and the Monarch Institute for Neurological Differences to train almost 500 staff members on related issues was highlighted in Houston Chronicle reporter Brian Rosenthal’s recent story. (See below)
The district’s alternative high school, Academy of Choice, meanwhile, resulted in a campus visit from KUHF Radio report Laura Isensee, who recorded an original audio “postcard” about AOC’s popular Restorative Justice support circles, an alternative method for dealing with issues and potential conflict.
Readers with Chronicle subscriptions can go directly to the website posting below; a text version of the article is posted below, too. The KUHF radio report is also highlighted and posted below with a link to the radio station’s web report.
Schools play growing role in addressing mental health challenges
Experts believe problems can be addressed earlyBy Brian M. Rosenthal
Austin Bureau Reporter, Houston Chronicle
Natalia Fernández Administrator of the System of Care team poses for a portrait inside a Spring Branch ISD TOTAL (Turnaround Opportunities Through Active Learning) program classroom Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, in Houston. TOTAL (Turnaround Opportunities Through Active Learning), is an innovative type of alternative school for students with mental health challenges in the district. Photo: James Nielsen, Houston Chronicle
In an ordinary classroom, the memories evoked by the finding could have triggered another outburst, furthering the damage while distracting the teacher and class.
The boy was in no ordinary classroom on this recent afternoon, however. He was in a special Spring Branch Independent School District program for students showing signs of mental illness, and the teacher, a licensed social worker, knew exactly what to do.
"Do you want to be that guy?" she asked. "Because we've met you. You have a heart of gold."
"I don't want to be a bully," the boy said.
The scene illustrates a fact that increasingly is becoming a focus of mental health experts: Schools can play a large role in addressing psychiatric issues.
Recent research indicates that half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by age 14, and three-quarters begin by age 24, making educational institutions where kids spend most of their time especially important.
In Texas, that reality is setting in slowly on policy makers. The state Legislature has approved bills in each of the last two sessions aimed at boosting school-based mental health care services but each time has left the details of implementation up to school officials, creating a patchwork of different programs and effectively leaving the level of help that kids get to chance, according to experts and an analysis of districts in the Houston area.
In Spring Branch ISD, for example, officials have created the special alternative program, struck up partnerships with the Harris Center for Mental Health and the Monarch Institute for Neurological Differences and put nearly 500 staffers through an eight-hour training called Mental Health First Aid. There have been no such trainings in nearby Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, where there are few efforts other than a short online suicide prevention course for staff.
Houston ISD also offers an online suicide prevention course and has trained about 175 staffers in Mental Health First Aid, according to a spokeswoman.
"There's very inconsistent application, in part, because the funding is limited," said Janet Pozmantier, manager at the School Behavioral Health Institute at Mental Health America of Greater Houston, an advocacy group. "We're so bad at funding basic mental health services in general, and there's very little available for schools."
As an example, Pozmantier cited Mental Health First Aid, an intensive, evidence-based training gaining praise across the country for its instruction in recognizing and responding to conditions, such as depression, bipolar disorder and severe anxiety.
Pozmantier applauded lawmakers for authorizing grants for the training in the 2013 session and continuing the program earlier this year, but she said they only provided $5 million.
To date, about 14,000 educators and non-educators have received Mental Health First Aid training, according to a report released last month by the Texas Department of State Health Services. The numbers varied widely across the state last fiscal year, with 689 educators in Harris County receiving the training, compared to 204 in the Dallas area.
Another example of the differences in implementation is Senate Bill 460, legislation approved in 2013 that required school districts to offer some type of mental health training to all staffers.
Two years later, school districts mostly are meeting the mandate through online courses, at least in the Houston area, according to a survey of districts.
Pozmantier suggested lawmakers should have gone further by requiring a more robust type of training. Online trainings are inadequate, she said, because "these are human people that we're talking about. You can't learn how to handle these situations by looking at a computer screen."
Former state Sen. Bob Deuell, a primary care doctor who sponsored the legislation, disagreed.
"My continuing medical education is mostly online these days," said Deuell, R-Greenville. "They actually have a whole set of effective online tools now."
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who was a co-author of the bill, said lawmakers crafted it to allow each district to provide the training that worked best for their individual situation. The Legislature is monitoring the situation, however, she said.
"We included flexibility. If we see that the flexibility was not justified, we will reconsider," she said, noting that House Speaker Joe Straus recently created a special committee to comprehensively study mental health care in the state. "If action is needed, we will take action."
Support Circles Grow At Spring Branch School
Instead of suspending kids, they’re focusing on supporting them.Laura Isensee
KUHF-FM Radio, Houston Public Media
Some schools in Houston are working to stop behavior problems before they begin. Instead of suspending kids, they’re focusing on supporting them. It’s called restorative justice.
At the Academy of Choice in Spring Branch, Anita Wadhwa coordinates support circles. The campus first used them to address conflicts. Now the circles go beyond that. Teachers, administrators and fellow students gather to support teens dealing with a range of issues, including low grades, losing a loved one and feeling excluded at school.
One recent support group was for Nancy. She’s a high school freshman at the Academy of Choice who got into a fight and was trying to figure out what to do next. (Editor’s Note: Some students in this piece are identified only by their first names to protect their privacy.)
What students and teachers say about support circles:
- “I don’t think there’s a lot of support for these kids. I really don’t. I mean, cutting, gangs, getting jumped, miscarriages. They’re just like, ‘Well, this is my life, this is how it is.’ And when you do a circle, they’re able to step back and hear from other people and realize, ‘Hey, what I’m going through is pretty tough and I need to take care of myself, and I need to love and take care of myself, this isn’t normal, things don’t have to be like this.’ And when they see that, it’s both helpful and painful,” says Anita Wadhwa, restorative justice coordinator.
- “Some people say the circles don’t even help you. Some of them do, some of them don’t. It depends on how you take it. If you’re actually into it, you’re going to get it … It makes a difference to me. It makes me feel like I’m special,” says Nancy, a freshman.
- “Since that circle, I let everything out and I feel new again, like newborn,” says Abdiel, 16.
- “After doing these circles … I finally feel like I can help people. It’s a good feeling, knowing that you helped somebody,” says Luis Funes, a high school senior.
For more information, visit the Restorative Justice Collaborative of Houston.