Beyond School Security: Mental Health – WJAC Johnstown Express News

Staff at State College Area School District said they’re focusing on the mental health of student more now than ever. (WJAC)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Security measures like armed guards, metal detectors and bullet-proof glass are now a part of everyday life in many schools.

However, it’s not the only thing some local schools are turning to to prevent school violence.

“When we talk about school shootings — not to get political — but when we talk about school shootings, you’ll notice most of the recommendations from professionals are looking at more social workers within the school, more nurses within the school because they interact with those students on those levels,” said Heidi Arruda, a nurse at Mount Nittany Middle School in the State College Area School District.

Staff at the district said they’re focusing on the mental health of students more now than ever.

“It’s amazing how much that comes up in the day-to-day care of students,” said Arruda.

Nurses said they’re preparing staff to take a closer look at student behavior and warning signs of mental health issues.

“There are a lot of emotional issues that present themselves initially as physical symptoms,” said Arruda. “Stomach aches – headaches.”

Nurses said it’s important for them to look at those symptoms beyond the surface to find out if there is something more dangerous going on.

“We have to be cognizant of what’s going on within the family system and be able to identify what are the real issues underlying the behaviors that we’re seeing or the physical symptoms that we’re seeing,” said Arruda.” “[And then] try to help identify what the feeling is, and work on how you manage those feelings.”

Others agree.

“Educating the community as to signs and symptoms and things we should be concerned about are absolutely the strategy for avoiding those kinds of outcomes,” said Dr. Ben Locke, a licensed psychologist and the senior director of the Penn State University Center for Counseling and Psychological Services.

At State College Area School District, administrators said mental health awareness in their schools now goes beyond the health room.

“The district actually does a universal screening where students register by name and students come out as extremely high risk, elevated risk or normal risk,” said Jeanne Knouse, the director of student services at State College Area School District.

The routine mental health screenings can alert staff to any red flags.

“We’re able to have those crucial conversations with them and find out what they’re really struggling with,” said Knouse.

Most agree, the fact that a student is struggling does not mean they’re at risk to be violent, though.

“Mental health is often a concern but it’s not necessarily the cause,” said Locke.

That’s why State College Area School District does both mental health screenings as well as threat assessments.

“When it comes to a threat assessment – that might be different,” said Knouse. “Threat assessments are conducted more when we’re seeing a high, elevated risk in addition to other behaviors that are risky behaviors.”

This increased focus on mental health, however, does not come for free.

It’s expensive.

The State College Area School District’s budget indicates it will spend more than $1.5 million on support services as it relates to pupil health in the 2018-19 school year.

Of that $1.5 million only $140,000 comes from state funding.

“Public funding for public mental health services have been tending to be cut,” said Locke.

The state Department of Health and Human Services budgeted $36.6 million for school districts in 2018-19.

That averages to about $73,000 per school district, if divided equally, when you consider there are 500 districts in Pennsylvania.

Experts indicated that could make it difficult to provide the proper services for students everywhere.

“What is concerning to me at times is that people are advocating for physical security, but not necessarily saying, simultaneously, that we need to make sure that students have the support that they need,” said Locke.

Locke also said another concerning issue, especially in Pennsylvania, is that public mental health services are scarcer in rural areas.

He said even less accessible are specialty health services like childhood psychiatry.

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