Last year, a third grader at Kris Christensen’s school in St. Paul, Minn., was hospitalized. She had been thinking about suicide.
Her problems were mostly invisible to adults. She had been sobbing alone in the bathroom. And unfortunately, a student has to cry for help loudly—noticeably—to get the attention of overburdened school mental-health professionals. Just imagine: this 9-year-old child easily could have slipped through the cracks.
“The kids who are quiet, who are more internalizing—they don’t get their needs met at all,” says Christensen, a 23-year veteran educator who splits her time between serving students as a licensed school social worker and serving St. Paul educators as a trauma coach. “Out of necessity, we’re currently in a reactive mode. We really need to take a proactive approach, which is what our union is doing with its proposal.”
Thousands of St. Paul students have complex and growing mental-health needs and educators want desperately to help them. That’s why the Saint Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) has made mental health its primary issue at the bargaining table this year, and offered a contract proposal that calls for every St. Paul public school serving K-12 students to be staffed by a mental-health team with licensed staff in these positions: psychologist, counselor, social worker, and nurse, as well as behavioral-support specialists or equivalent education support professionals.
This team would be able to "work pro-actively to support students through things like social-emotional learning and restorative practices, and also support the professional development of staff in things like trauma-informed practices and de-escalation techniques," says Christensen.
It's a proposal grounded in the experience of educators and parents. “We brought together some of our (SPFE) leaders who are experts in this area—counselors, psychologists, nurses, social workers—and some community members as well, and that’s where we came to this proposal,” says SPFE President Nick Faber.
The idea is that “every student in every school should have a qualified provider to help them navigate mental health,” says Tom Stinson, a St. Paul school nurse for 22 years and member of SPFE’s contract bargaining team.
After introducing the proposal this summer in an open-to-the-public session of bargaining, which is typical for bargaining sessions involving SPFE, “We walked through the stories of kids who had slipped through the cracks,” says Faber. Many parents and other community members attended. “There were tears in the room. You could hear a pin drop,” he recalls.
The union re-introduced the proposal last month. In response, the school district said they’d like to put together a committee to study the issue. Union leaders say that is an unacceptable to the crisis in their schools.
“They’re clearly not hearing the urgency,” says Faber.
Helping Children in Need
Like most school districts across the U.S., St. Paul has a growing, large number of students with mental-health needs, including many impacted by trauma in their lives. Last year, 70 percent of teens said anxiety and depression is a “major problem” among their peers. Meanwhile, NEA members are learning how traumatic experiences in childhood, like evictions, homelessness, violence in the home or neighborhood, can affect a child’s brain development and ability to learn.
In a new website, called supportstpaulstudents.org, SPFE members tell the stories of these students and their unmet, overwhelming needs.
Out of necessity, we’re currently in a reactive mode. We really need to take a proactive approach, which is what our union is doing with its proposal.”- Kris Christensen, St. Paul teacher
“I see them in ninth grade, I see them deteriorate over the course of a year…and by 11th and 12th grade, they’re gone,” says an English teacher on the site. “It’s not for lack of caring. There’s just not enough adults in the room. I think if we had the resources…to really intervene, dig into their situations and help them, it would make a tremendous difference.”
One middle school counselor—the only counselor at her school—has a caseload of almost 500 students, including refugee students. “There is no way that I will ever get to help, guide, support and advocate for all my students who need it,” she says. “I have to triage and I have to say, ‘what you’re asking me to help you with will just have to wait,’ because instead I have to help with two kids who are threatening suicide, or I have to deal with this kid who found out during the school day that they are now homeless.”
With so much work and so much stress, plus the constant fear that they’re failing their students, St. Paul educators are suffering, too. They describe sleepless nights and other symptoms of secondary traumatic stress, which is experienced through indirect exposure to trauma. “Because we don’t have these supports in our classrooms, last year we had 300 teachers not return—that’s 10 percent,” says Faber.
The St. Paul school district’s response has been inadequate, say Faber and others. Mental-health staffing is inconsistent from school to school, often depending on a principal’s priorities. Most social workers work with special-education students only because the school district hasn’t allocated money to hire social workers to work with general-education students. Some principals find the money—but they also require social workers to do a lot of work that isn’t social work.
“A lot of [school social workers and counselors] are running around with radios on their hips, or covering the lunchroom. Time gets spent doing something different than what professionals see as their role,” says Christensen.
At Stinson’s high school, which has almost 2,000 students, the one and only social worker works almost exclusively with students with IEPs. The other 80 percent of students don’t have much access to a social worker. “We have a high percentage of students [across the district] that don’t get services. They’re not gifted and talented, they’re not high needs—they’re the hamburger in the middle,” he says. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t experienced trauma. Many have, and many have mental-health needs that go overlooked.
Meanwhile, some St. Paul school psychologists have caseloads of 1,800 kids across two or three schools, and counselors and nurses are similarly overburdened. Stinson is the only registered nurse on his campus and he’d already seen nearly 1,800 students by mid-November, but some St. Paul schools don’t have a registered nurse at all. Instead, teachers, principals and administrative staff are expected to tend to students’ health emergencies like “pseudo-nurses,” says Stinson.
“I think that’s pathetic,” says Stinson. “Yesterday, I listened to 10 people’s lungs. I know what pneumonia sounds like. Now you’re going to have somebody with no [medical] background decide if somebody is asthmatic?”