Douglas County leaders talk mental health support for students

Programs also available to help with student engagement in schools

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Douglas County School District parents are stressing the effect of remote education and COVID-19's turmoil on their children's mental health.

At a Dec. 10 school board meeting, one woman became emotional sharing how her 14-year-old child was hospitalized and now requires medication to manage depression during the crisis.

Another woman described watching “our children become sadder and sadder by the day” during remote education and feared depressed children might turn to self-harm amid pandemic pressures and isolation.

Both hoped for a return to in-person learning. Later in the meeting, the district announced a phased approach to bringing students back in the second semester.

While elementary students are planned to start full in-person learning on Jan. 5, middle and high school students would not return to hybrid learning until late January and February respectively, if all goes well.

Local leaders met on Dec. 15 to discuss resources to help students stay engaged in school and find mental health support if needed. The Douglas County Sheriff's Office gathered a virtual panel of law enforcement, county government and school district personnel to meet virtually on the topic.

DC Student Assistance Director Janet Laning-Krug told the panel the school district has multiple programs underway to help families. The district's DC Student Assistance department oversees issues such as truancy prevention, dropout reduction and expulsion services.

Most recently, the district rolled out a program called the “Care Crew,” she said. More than 40 volunteers go on home visits to ask struggling district families what assistance they need.

“We just go to the kids' homes that have kind of fallen off the radar or are starting to struggle with remote learning,” she said.

The program has already received 108 referrals from schools and conducted 57 home visits since its launch in the past couple weeks. The volunteers bring a gift of school supplies, snacks and try to assess what barriers a student is facing in their education.

Laning-Krug said Mesa Middle School in Castle Rock sent six staff members out on “Care Crew” visits and learned families they checked on had lost internet connections. The district was able to provide those students with Wi-Fi hotspots and computers, Laning-Krug said.

The district also offers free K-12 tutoring. More than 300 teachers have signed up to be tutors, Laning-Krug said.

“Sometimes, when you are trying to educate your own child, it's really hard to keep them going,” she said.

Through the virtual tutoring program, students can receive up to four hours of tutoring a week from a certified teacher.

“We know the struggles of our families right now,” she said. “This is not something that you can do by yourself. This is something that takes all of us to do.”

Aaron Ragon, the school district's lead counselor, said parents should not be afraid to communicate with school counselors as well. About a third of counselors' calls are with parents, in addition to helping students with mental health needs, scheduling or college planning, he said.

“We welcome these calls and we are certainly a resource to parents,” he said.

Every district school has at least one counselor, after the district added dozens at the elementary level last year and maintains a ratio of 250 student to every counselor at the middle and high school level, Ragon said.

Jim Baroffio, a clinical psychologist on the panel, said families should set up a management plan during the pandemic and have clear, open communication with their children about stress and anxiety.

Parents are also responsible for helping children find joy and happiness during the pandemic, he said, and can foster psychological growth during the crisis.

“At the end of the day, we're all going to come out changed,” he said.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock spoke about the office's Community Response Team, or CRT, and its Youth Community Response Team. The program pairs a clinician with a law enforcement officer to assist community members who need mental health resources or are experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

“The key is, is that when we hear that there is a young person that is in stress or some kind of crisis, they can call us and they don't have to worry that they are going to get handcuffed,” he said. “We've trained our clinicians and our Youth CRT folks. That's not the focus. The focus is helping them.”

Spurlock said the CRT program has been a success and can continue to help people through the COVID-19 public health crisis.

During the Dec. 10 board meeting, interim Superintendent Corey Wise announced the district's plan for second semester, including information about mental health support for students.

“I know that this has been tough, when we talk about mental health,” Wise said.

The district's Personalized Learning Officer Nancy Ingalls said schools have worked hard to create supportive virtual environments for families and to keep students engaged.

“Every school has personalized how they do this,” she said.

Elementary school counselors get students together virtually to read or watch a movie after school. Virtual clubs are emerging at the middle, high school and e-learning level. Some schools still conduct whole-school assemblies virtually.

“In our high schools, our counselors are reaching out and serving all students, asking them questions about their well-being,” she said.

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