Column: High schools utilize various services for disturbed teens

By Don Heinzman – ECM Publishers

 When Joseph Meuwissen came to the Bloomington School District to be a school psychologist 35 years ago, there were no such things as school shootings. Then kids “duked” it out after school; now they bring a weapon.

Over those 35 years, the number of students who are mentally disturbed in the school system has grown.

Most of the students are well balanced, but the small number served represents “very tough cases.”

Andy Beaton, Kennedy High School principal, and Meuwissen, who is stationed most of the time at Jefferson High School where he’s been since 1993, agree schools are doing a better job of identifying students with social and emotional problems.

“We are more sensitive and attuned to the needs of these students,” Beaton said.

Once the student is referred, a threat assessment team at Jefferson goes into action, involves the parents and develops a plan.

The same is true at Kennedy where two support teams made up of teachers, counselors, social workers and the school psychologist work with the parents, monitor the student’s behavior and intervene earlier.

Meuwissen says most of the support services for the district are delivered in the community. The district contracts with such agencies as Cornerstone and the Washburn Child Guidance Center. The assessment teams also partner with families, physicians, social workers and a county-based crisis team that may even hospitalize the student.

Another compounding issue for students at both schools arises when they cannot afford to buy their prescribed medicines.

Some intelligent, troubled students are failing in school and worse yet are not coming to school, said Meuwissen.

“We are seeing more students going through depression and eating disorders,” he said.

It is rare, however, when kids bring a weapon to school.

Homeless students are also helped at both high schools.

At Kennedy, counselors and social workers try to provide transportation to and from school for those students who are at temporary housing and shelters.

At Kennedy, there is a special pantry stocked with supplies including soap and shampoo for homeless students. It’s stocked with donations solicited by a parent.

Meuwissen says elective classes are being cut that “different” students could take. Students with potential at Jefferson no longer can take some of the non-academic programs that have been cut, such as auto mechanics. Jefferson offers wood shop classes for two of the three semesters.

Beaton says these elective classes are offered based on enrollment. A change in how classes are scheduled to save funds has resulted in fewer periods for students to take the elective classes.

Jefferson has 1,650 students served by Meuwissen, four counselors, and a chemical health specialist. For the first time in a while, Jefferson has one full-time social worker.

Kennedy’s 1550 students are served by five licensed counselors, a school psychologist, two social workers and the two support teams.

The school district itself has eight psychologists, some part time, who spend 70 percent of their time working with special education students and 30 percent with regular students who have problems.

The district has enough staff to meet most of the needs of the students with mental challenges.

Granted there are other resources in the district, such as the Pond Early Childhood Family Center where there is a Washburn center for mental health. The district also partners with District 917 that works with emotional and behavioral students.

Jefferson and Kennedy High Schools have all kinds of clubs and organizations for students of all descriptions. The problem is some troubled students don’t join them.

Meuwissen worries about the students who drop out of school.

Asked how the community could help students with problems, Beaton said he’d like to see more places after school in the community where students could belong, become involved in athletic and music groups and do homework – places where they can connect.

Bloomington does not have a Boys and Girls Club and YMCA.

A community can help by alerting school officials about kids who are acting unusually, said Meuwissen. Students are reluctant to come forth and talk about another student who is talking strangely.

“The community needs to wrap its arms around these kids,” Meuwissen said. “We are looking for ways to expand how to deal with students with intense needs, someone who needs ongoing and family therapies.”