Brunswick school leaders plan to provide mental health facility for elementary students

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BrunswickCSBrunswick County education officials are moving forward with a plan to assist elementary students with mental health issues.

The day treatment program will pair educators with psychologists within the classroom to help address students who require additional services.

The concept of a day treatment facility–in place in school districts across the state and country, as nearby as New Hanover County–arose out of feedback from county educators and administrators, as well as community organizations.

“Over the last two or three years, elementary principals have indicated an increase in students who have aggressive behaviors, mental health issues, different things that [require] additional services,” assistant superintendent Dr. Deanne Meadows noted.

The district’s own workman’s compensation claims support that indication, Meadows added.

In 2012, 51 of the 160 claims filed by employees were due to an assault by a student. Of those 51, all but one occurred in the elementary-school setting. Similarly, 2013 claims indicated 48 of 152 claims were student assaults, 45 at the elementary level.

Last year, there was a jump in claims–66 of 158–with 64 of those happening in elementary schools.

While there are programs and professionals in place in a traditional school setting to address students’ psychological needs, Meadows said a small segment of the county’s students require more.

“Those different programs and those different services we currently use, but we believe we are still not able to meet all the needs that are necessary through this continuum of services,” she said.

Students selected for the day treatment program would receive clinical assessments, as well as individual, group and family counseling incorporated into their school day and alongside regular classroom curricula.

The mental health aspect would be funded through Medicaid, which include positions for a clinical director, part-time therapist and classroom support staff. The district would need to pick up the cost of four additional teachers.

“So, we are not paying for mental health services,” Meadows said.

The day treatment center would be a short-term solution for addressing students with mental health issues, Meadows said, not a school to which they would be assigned for their entire elementary education.

And students could only be referred after all other traditional school-based options had been exhausted.

“So, it’s not a referral just to say, ‘okay, a kid got in trouble today; they’re going to day treatment program.’ We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about kids who have a mental health diagnosis and who have had some continuous interventions from the school because of their needs and those things are not working and we need to try something different,” she said.

Meadows said educators have already identified approximately 30 students who would benefit from the program.

“They are currently sitting in our schools right now; they just don’t have a place to go to get assistance for their mental health services or their mental health needs,” she said. “So, quite often we are having to use multiple staff members to deal with students who are in this situation. Those students are really taking a lot of services from other students because of their high level of need.”

Meadows said the ideal location would be Bolivia Elementary, there are enough unused classrooms to accommodate identified students from across the district in a separate wing.

“There are not classes currently taking place in any of those classrooms,” Meadows said. “There is space at that school; there is not space at other schools.”

While acknowledging that such a program was needed in the county, a group of Bolivia Elementary parents and teachers expressed concerns about it being located at their school, most dealing with the safety of other students and the impact of re-transitioning the day treatment students back into the regular classroom setting.

Board member Charlie Miller agreed.

“Hey, it’s needed. I agree with that. But I don’t think Bolivia is the right site,” Miller said.

Instead of approving the site–with a start date of next school year–the board unanimously agreed to move ahead with negotiations with Alexander Youth Network, the recommended mental health provider, and to review Bolivia Elementary and other district facilities.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@hometownwilmington.com.