By Callie Hietala
Student mental health was the central theme to emerge at the regular meeting of the Martinsville City School Board.
Board members heard from school psychologist Dr. Travis Worrell on National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, the schools’ Director of Pupil Personnel and Foster Care/Homeless Liaison Felicia Preston on the Virginia School Boards Association’s Bullying Prevention Month, and from several Piedmont Community Services staff, including executive director Greg Preston, on some of their work to help reach students and staff alike.
Worrell told the board that, over the past decade, suicide rates among middle school girls have doubled, likely due to the introduction of social media. He said there has been an overall increase in social and emotional issues in school-aged children since the pandemic began, and that “at the high school and middle school level, the kids are old enough to really process suicide and what that means, and I know Ms. Scott, the counsellor there, is putting up flyers around the schools, she’s talking about the Trevor Project, she’s doing journal groups where the kids are writing things down, she’s doing individual and group counselling to talk about risk.”
The Trevor Project focuses on suicide prevention among the LGBTQIA+ youth community.
While middle school students are having similar discussions to those in the high school, Worrell said discussions of suicide aren’t yet age-appropriate at the elementary level. However, counsellors there are working on social-emotional learning skills, which include a check in, check out program for kids who are having a hard time—they can bookend their school day with conversations with an adult about how they’re doing. Even at Clearview, Worrell said, youngest students are taught that adults care for them.
“One thing we’ve learned about suicide is having one adult outside the home that really cares for you is one of the best resiliency things that we can instill in a kid, and we’re definitely say that we’re doing that in Martinsville City,” he said.
Martinsville schools also are working with a Positive Behavior Intervention and Support team on implementing a universal screening process for students, he said.
“For years, we’ve been screening for reading and math problems, hearing problems, all that stuff. We’re starting to screen for social and emotional problems now, and this is something really nobody in the state of Virginia is doing,” Worrell said.
The program began in the early days of the pandemic, when everyone was asking how children were coping with isolation and virtual learning.
“Martinsville City was one of the few that said let’s do something about it,” Worrell said, adding that a checklist was sent home to each student to ask how they were feeling. As a result, three or four children in each school indicated that they were in crisis mode and needed to speak to someone right away. Counsellors responded, “and who knows what that saved,” said Worrell. He added that the school system is preparing to roll out a universal survey which will screen students for a litany of issues, including social and emotional issues.
Felicia Preston said that bullying in schools also affects students’ mental health and can lead to behavioral problems, health issues, negative school outcomes, drug use, and suicide. She noted that while October is National Bullying Prevention Month, prevention and negative effects of bullying are taught year-round in Martinsville schools. Counsellors work with students to make sure that they can feel safe in their schools.
Preston noted that Martinsville High School counsellor Kristen Scott created a student advisory committee to come up with ideas and activities for students. An Instagram page (@mhc_student_advisory) will be among the tools used to anonymously report bullying incidents or anonymously report anything students want to talk about. A physical box also is located at the high school for students to anonymously report incidents of bullying.
Greg Preston, of Piedmont Community Services, as well as several of his staff, focused on the importance of mental health and the services that Piedmont Community Services offers.
“We’re here to help, and we’re here to partner with the schools and with the community,” Preston said.
“It’s okay to ask for help,” he said. “Don’t be embarrassed by it. Please call and discuss any concerns that you have.”
There are several different hotlines provided by Piedmont Community Services, including an emergency mental health crisis line, a suicide prevention hotline, a student hotline, and more. All are listed on Piedmont Community Services’ website, PiedmontCSB.org.
Greg Preston said he met with school superintendents in both the city and the county to discuss collaboration during the pandemic. The result of that meeting is a committee which is working to developing trainings, programs, and strategies to help teachers, staff, and students navigate the mental toll of the pandemic. The committee is made up of representatives from Piedmont Community Services, Martinsville City, and Henry County schools and will work to generate ideas and solutions to ensure teachers’ and administrators’ mental health needs are being met and recognized, as well as those of the students.
In other matters, the board:
*Heard from Shauna Hines, Martinsville City Schools’ coordinator of STEAM, CTE, and Fine Arts, about the Canvas learning management system.
*Heard from Jill Collins, coordinator of STEM, Math, and Science, about her experience with the Virginia Declaration of Learning Professional Development Program.
*Approved minutes for board meetings from August 2, 17, and 21 board meetings.
*Approved the financial report.
*Approved minor language changes and updates in legal reference to certain policies upon first and final reading.