When Sunset Elementary School Principal Ann Smejkal started her career in education 37 years ago she said she would see one or two students in a classroom with significant behavioral issues. Today she says it’s common to see four or five, or more.
“School professionals are finding that more 4- and 5-year-olds are arriving at school without the skills needed for school readiness,” Smejkal said.
That’s shown in an increase in students at risk in reading and math, but more alarming is the increase in behavioral problems.
In 2015, Smejkal reported that 14 percent of 4k students and 30 percent of kindergarten students had a discipline referral in the first quarter of the school year.
“We have wonderful families and kids, but many of them are having a really hard time adjusting to a school environment,” Smejkal said. “We have to spend a lot of time teaching social and emotional learning, learning how to share, take turns, make friends. We have to spend a lot of time on that before we get into academics.”
She attributes much of the problem to economics.
“Families are working two or three jobs to meet their needs and don’t have the time to teach those basic skills at home or support learning at home,” she said. “It’s more challenging to have that family time.”
When she came back to Sturgeon Bay schools 12 years ago, 26 percent of elementary students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. Today, every elementary school in Sturgeon Bay reports more than 50 percent of students are eligible. Down the line more of these students are continuing to struggle with those issues in middle school and high school, grappling with emotional and social issues that teachers aren’t equipped to address.
Schools are seeing an increase in depression and anxiety, trauma in the home environment, incarcerated parents, and other issues that result in more students acting out in school. In the most recent youth risk behavior survey of Door County students, 34 percent of students reported being bullied, 15 percent said they considered suicide within the last 12 months, and five percent made a suicide attempt. Teen crisis calls are up, with 23 percent of calls to the county’s crisis hotline coming from youth age 18 and below in 2017.
Child abuse and neglect reports are also on the rise. In 2009 the Department of Human Services received 239 child welfare reports. That number rose to 402 in 2017.
“That’s a very significant increase,” said Doreen Goddard, social work manager at the Door County Department of Human Services. “Parents who have a history of trauma themselves that have gone untreated, that carries over into their ability to parent their children and care for their children. Typically, the importance of education is promoted from a young age, and for these parents, they might lack that positive attitude toward education. They may be so drained trying to to meet their basic needs so maybe education isn’t that great of a priority.”
A new pilot program funded by United Way will launch in October to address one gap in addressing these issues. The STRIDE program (Strengthening Trust and Resilience, Instilling Independence, and Discovering Empowerment) is committed to removing the three major barriers to youth mental health treatment: cost, travel and the low number of local providers.
At a roundtable discussion in January, Door County public health officials identified the lack of psychiatrists, especially child psychiatrists, as one of the county’s greatest public health problems.
In Wisconsin the ratio of residents to mental health providers is 623 – 1, but in Door County it’s 715 – 1. Availability is even slimmer in northern Door County. If a student needs to see a counselor, they often have to wait weeks for an appointment, then travel to Sturgeon Bay or Green Bay for services. That can take students out of school for half a day or more, and require parents to take significant time off work.
Funded by the United Way, STRIDE will place a mental health counselor in each of the four mainland Door County schools one day per week. Counselors are provided by Door County Medical Center, Counseling Associates of Door County, Bellin Health, and Door County Human Services, who have all agreed to donate their services for the first three months of the program.
The program is the result of more than two years of discussions among providers, funders, schools, mental health organizations and county staff.
“Access to mental health services has long been recognized as a huge need in our community,” said Cori McFarlane, deputy director of the Door County Department of Human Services. “There are many children and families who just can’t get into our offices, and the further you get from Sturgeon Bay, the more those issues are exacerbated.”
She said schools have been “screaming for help.”
Barbara Johnson-Giese, behavioral health coordinator at Door County Medical Center, said schools are enthusiastic about the program.
“With mental health issues, learning can be extremely difficult,” she said. “The ability to regulate behavior and to sit and listen can be nearly impossible for children with anxiety and depression at all levels.”
Johnson-Giese hopes the program helps reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues by bringing them forward rather than hiding them.
“Schools are changing their approach,” she said. “Instead of asking what’s wrong with you, schools are now asking what happened to you.”
Tim Mulrain, dean of students at Gibraltar Schools, said schools won’t incur any cost through the program, and no students will be forced to participate.
“We’re basically offering a resource,” he said. “We’re not screening our student body, we just want to offer support right here at the school that they might need. It doesn’t totally fix the problem, but it takes care of the transportation issues.”
The services will not initially be available to students already engaged with a counselor. The first phase will be targeted at those students who haven’t been able to find care due to cost or transportation hurdles. Mulrain said the schools will identify students who could benefit from counseling.
“We’re training teachers to be more aware of symptoms of mental health issues in school,” he said. “They report those to our counselors who will work with students and parents to find out if they’re accessing mental health services, or facing barriers to getting care.”
When United Way President Grace Rossman announced the program at a kickoff event in August, she lauded the groups that collaborated to bring the program to life.
“We all know that here in Door County, access and options for medical providers can be limiting,” she said. “We also know that the lives of our youth are invaluable. STRIDE is our solution and we are working to ensure that during this upcoming 2018-2019 school year we deliver the best opportunities for our students to receive quality access to mental health care.”