The Governing Board of the Benicia Unified School District heard a discussion on the need for more counseling and mental health support in the district at a busy Thursday night meeting.
Carolyn Patton, the district’s special services director, led the discussion through a Power Point presentation. She cited one of Superintendent Charles Young’s goals for the district, which was “to promote safe and welcoming schools, and building empathetic, responsive, student-centered networks of support.” She then mentioned two practices that would allow schools to reach this goal: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports- which looks at data to see if students understand what school behavior is like- and the American School Counselor Association’s national model.
The data for the first practice is determined by the California Healthy Kids Survey, which has already been completed by students and is currently underway for staff and parents.
The American School Counselor Association’s national model looks at what direct services counselors provide to students. According to Patton, one-third of their time should be spent on core instruction, another third should be spent on helping students plan their schedules and the last third should be spent on responsive services like resolving conflicts between students and teachers. Patton will delve into this data at a later date.
Patton also brought up the student-counselor gap at Benicia High School. The California Department of Education recommends a student-counselor ratio of 361-to-1, while ASCA recommends a ratio of 250-to-1. Benicia High has a ratio of 550-to-1, which is well above the recommended ratios. Currently, the school has three counselors plus a career counselor and administrative assistant to serve the needs of around 1,700 students.
“We would need more counselors at the high school to beat that ratio,” Patton said.
On a more positive note, Patton noted that Mental Health Coordinator Jessica Garcia has been able to implement a number of services, including weekly meeting with Benicia High and Benicia Middle School’s counselors and psychologists, a mentoring program at Benicia Middle, a Stress Less Week to take place before Benicia High’s finals week and a suicide prevention handbook as well as suicide awareness training.
Patton says the district wants to implement the Sources of Strength suicide prevention program to train staff involved with the Safe School Ambassadors program. it also is looking to enact a social emotional learning curriculum that deals with how to handle stress and depression.
“We do not teach this on a regular basis,” Patton said. “We introduce it a little bit in the middle school, and we hit suicide prevention and some emotional development in ninth-grade health, but it’s not taught systematically. We’ve heard from parents, students and staff that we need to be more diligent about that.”
Additionally, a “Stress Less Holidays for Families” event will be held 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 15 at Benicia Middle School. Mental wellness experts and psychologists will be on hand to talk about the causes of stress and provide tips on how to overcome it.
Patton called upon the community to continue to provide feedback.
“I want to thank the board for holding us accountable on helping us to get a suicide prevention policy,” she said. “I want to ask you to continue to hold us accountable and look at that second goal and help us to work towards that.”
Trustee Andre Stewart highlighted the need for specificity in the plan.
“I would ask that we do consider putting target dates into when we’re going to archive these goals,” he said.
Stewart also asked if there was a number as to how many students were helped by counselors. Patton said the tracking form indicated how many cases were closed and which students and how many students were referred on to other services.
Additionally, Stewart also underlined the importance of the high school bringing in more counselors.
“I hope that we really are more aggressive in 2016 in hiring more counselors,” he said.
A public comment was given by Barbara Gervase, the mother of Kyle Hyland, a Benicia High student who died by suicide last year. Gervase thanked Patton for presenting her plans but agreed with Stewart that specific dates were needed.
“We all hope for the best, but we really need a thorough, laid-out plan so we can reach those targets and make sure that the board knows what needs to be funded,” she said.
After her son’s death, Gervase set up the Kyle Hyland Foundation with the goal of raising awareness of suicide rates among teens. The foundation has been working to establish a teen center in Benicia with activities geared toward teenagers and counselors and mentors to provide support. Patton announced at the meeting that a space has been found for the center. According to the foundation’s Facebook page, the center will be operating within the Gateway Church, located at 1315 Military West, just down the street from Benicia High. An open house is planned for January.
In other business, the board re-elected Gary Wing as president and elected Diane Ferrucci to fill late Trustee Rosie Switzer’s role as clerk. The board also observed a moment of silence for Switzer after short speeches by each trustee, and it determined that an appointment would be made by Jan. 28 to fill the vacancy on the board.