Bend-La Pine School Board encourages mental health support for all students
The Bend-La Pine School Board meeting drew more people than usual to hear Sean Reinhart, Bend-La Pine executive director of special programs, talk about the district’s framework for addressing student mental health. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The Bend-La Pine School District is addressing student mental health at a districtwide level, Sean Reinhart told community members Tuesday night.
“Some people when they hear mental health, they jump straight to mental illness,” said Reinhart, Bend-La Pine executive director of special programs. “Our mission is to promote positive mental health for all kids.”
The Bend-La Pine School Board held a “community engagement” meeting Tuesday focused on mental health, drawing more than 100 people to Sky View Middle School.
A growing body of research shows that negative childhood experiences affect brain chemistry and development, hindering students’ ability to learn.
Oregon does not have a centralized approach to student mental health. School district efforts range from in-school clinics to doing nothing, according to Jeremy Wells, education specialist at the Oregon Department of Education. Some districts partner with private and county health services to provide counselors or create drop-in sites, and others hire their own mental health specialists to visit schools.
Local help lines as well as the statewide SafeOregon tip line give students another way to reach out. Some rural districts use teleconferencing to offer students personal time with counselors.
Reinhart said Bend-La Pine is basing its efforts on the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health as the ability to deal with normal stresses, build healthy relationships and live a fruitful life.
Reinhart said the district wants to systematically look at mental health through a multi-tiered lens, much as it does for subjects such as math and reading. All students should get mental health support and education. A small percentage of students need more interventions and supports, and a smaller percentage require intensive individualized programs.
“We need to create a culture where it’s OK to ask for help,” Board Member Cheri Helt told community members.
The district’s current approach is uneven, depending on different schools’ staff training, learning environments and programs, Reinhart said. The district is working toward developing a more coherent system to train staff, identify student needs and develop curriculum.
“Our solution is to adapt our schools to the learners,” he said.
Social-emotional learning is central to Bend-La Pine’s mental health approach, Reinhart said. The evidence-based process teaches children how to manage emotions, make good decisions and build empathy. A wide body of research shows social-emotional learning reduces disruptive behavioral problems and offers long-range academic improvements.
Board Member Julie Craig helped organize the Tuesday meeting, which included an overview of the district’s framework and breakout sessions on district programs.
Craig said parents had told the board that students need more mental health support and that call has been amplified in the wake of recent school shootings.
At one of the night’s school board listening sessions, Alicia Covell said student needs have increased in the 12 years she’s been a Bend-La Pine school psychologist. Students are inundated with more information and more stressors and they need help filtering, she said.
Members of the Bend-La Pine Superintendent’s Student Advisory Team (from left, Logan Holler, Emma Beaver, Francisco Olague, Izzy Armstrong and Marly Howell) presented a breakout session during the school board’s meeting focusing on student mental health. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Summit High School junior Logan Holler, a member of the superintendent’s student advisory group, said the digital age adds pressures, including “FOMO”: fear of missing out. The advisory group’s session promoted Challenge Day, an effort to break down barriers that leave students feeling isolated or depressed.
Tuesday’s meeting was the board’s fourth “community engagement” this school year. The special meetings are intended to increase parent involvement and attendance by focusing on a high-interest topic. Craig said she hopes the board will do more community engagement meetings on mental health to dive deeper into individual issues.
Attendees included district administrators and staff. Board Member Carrie Douglass said it was important to hear unfiltered accounts of just how significantly mental health needs in schools have increased in recent years.
“We don’t have time to wait for budget cycles,” she said.
Craig said the board prioritizes supporting student mental health but she doesn’t think the community is fully aware of all that schools offer.
“The board wants to help as much as possible with the resources we have available,” she said.
Many parents, although supportive of the work, raised budget questions.
Matt Abrams, parent of a fifth-grader and a first-grader, said mental health care should be as common as dental care, but he also wants to see data showing that specific programs are effective. He praised the school board for its efforts but said the district has finite resources.
“The community has to engage,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA