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Dickinson Public Schools secures $2.3 million grant for Mental Health resources

Dickinson Press - 1/24/2023

Jan. 24—DICKINSON — The Dickinson Public School District (DPS) announced Friday that it will receive a $2.27 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to fund mental health resources in the district. The funding will be spread over five years and will enable the district to hire five additional staff members.

According to a survey conducted by a senior health science class at Dickinson High School in 2021, approximately 40% of student respondents said they've had thoughts of suicide. The class, taught by DHS health sciences teacher Sara Rhode, made presentations to various boards and committees in Dickinson highlighting the growing adolescent mental health concerns in the months following the survey.

Prairie Rose Elementary Assistant Principal and Social Emotional Learning Coordinator Rich Smith said that the K-12 sector has seen a growing demand for mental health professionals and that there is currently a national shortage of such employees. The district currently has five school psychologists, five social workers and 13 school counselors. Smith added that the new staff will fill a mix of those three roles, noting that while all three have distinct responsibilities, they work as teams and there is considerable overlap in what they do.

"These resources allow students to come to school feeling better about themselves, using some of those skills so that they can develop academically," Smith said. "We want to be preventative. We know that there's issues out there, but we want to continue to get to that antecedent."

DPS Director of Student Services Sheri Twist explained how the school's current mental health teams work with some students individually on methods for academic success.

"They could just be, well, what is self management? How do you organize yourself? How do you make sure you're getting to class on time?... So our counselors focus on that (academic strategies) too," she said.

Twist also noted that the district has created "wellness rooms" for children to decompress. She emphasized that these rooms are not for disciplinary purposes but rather as a tool to help students diffuse their frustrations instead of having a meltdown in the classroom. All six DPS elementary schools currently have one, with some students scheduled to use the rooms, while others use it as needed.

"So a wellness room is more of like a calming, reset room for kids that might become overstimulated, or sometimes the classroom is too much. And it's a place for them to go to calm down and to reset, so they can go back to class ready to learn," Twist said. "Because of course, we all have a level of tolerance, right? And sometimes a child's tolerance threshold is lower than ours."

Madi Knodel, a school psychologist for Prairie Rose and Berg Elementary Schools, provided insight into her job and the importance of mental health support for students. Knodel said that each day looks different, with some days focused on meeting with groups of students to work on social emotional behavioral skills, and other days focused on one-on-one meetings with different students to work on targeted, student-specific skills. Knodel highlighted how her job helps students handle disappointment, build mental fortitude and emotional resilience to process what's going on around them.

"Each day looks pretty different. Some days, it's meeting with groups of students to work on some social emotional behavioral skills. Other days, it might be meeting one on one with different students to work on really targeted student specific skills," she said. "It could be helping when they're dysregulated, to bring them back to a state of regulation. It could be, you know, working behind the scenes to develop behavior plans and different interventions to help our students be successful at school."

Knodel added, "If we all had the same thoughts and feelings to all situations, then the world would be a pretty boring place. And we would know exactly what to expect at all times. So allowing for that individuality when we feel big thoughts and feelings, and then just helping everyone process them in appropriate ways (is important)."

The grant will help the district to continue to provide mental health support and resources to students in need, allowing them to have the tools they need to succeed academically and emotionally. DPS administrators have also taken initiatives to encourage strong mental health among faculty and staff.

"I think sometimes we overlook our staff but we shouldn't," Twist said.

A Community Health Needs Assessment for Stark County conducted by CHI St. Alexius and the UND Center for Rural Health, published in March of 2022. It found that DPS is the city's largest employer, followed by Steffes and Dickinson State University.

The report also showed a correlation between single parent homes and adverse health.

"Adults and children in single-parent households are at risk for adverse health outcomes, including mental illness (e.g. substance abuse, depression, suicide) and unhealthy behaviors (e.g. smoking, excessive alcohol use)," the assessment stated. "Mortality risk is also higher among lone parents. Children in single-parent households are at greater risk of severe morbidity and all-cause mortality than their peers in two-parent households."

Smith said the data in the assessment is useful in helping him address the needs of students.

"If you look at this report, we feel that anxiety and depression are things that our youth are experiencing... And we see throughout the schools, the self management and self awareness competencies playing a role in that," he said. "So what can we do to prevent it really, directly ties in with this grant in our ability to meet that need and help our students become successful for a community years down the line."


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