In August, the Pennsylvania School Safety Task Force published a final report with extensive recommendations to improve school safety, security, and preparedness. The findings are the result of six regional meetings held from April through June as part of the initiative created by Gov. Tom Wolf and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale earlier this year. Not surprisingly, many of the recommendations center around mental health.
The School Safety Task Force included students, parents, administrators, teachers, school nurses, health care professionals, government officials, statewide education organizations, law enforcement, public safety officials, and community members. According to the report, recommendations are based on feedback from more than 200 meeting participants and the more than 788 Pennsylvanians who shared their suggestions through an online survey.
Among these was David J. Lillenstein, Ed.D., a nationally certified school psychologist in Derry Township School District in Hershey. Dr. Lillenstein works with students in grades 2 and 3, and high school students. He testified before the Task Force during the regional meeting held in Lock Haven and recalls a group of students who also testified that day.
“The students were saying, ‘putting stronger windows, and thicker windows, and stronger locks, is not going to make us feel safer.’ They said, ‘what will make us feel safer is more mental health services in the schools.’ And I actually testified to the same,” Dr. Lillenstein says. “While I do think it is a good idea to have our buildings safe and secure, that is not the answer. Because no matter how safe and secure you make the exterior, we still have needs on the interior. And those needs on the interior are mental health needs.”
Dr. Lillenstein’s colleague believes an increase in mental health services would also take away some of the stigma attached to these supports.
“We want to make sure that mental health services are part of an option of supports that students have access to readily and without having to feel embarrassed, or humiliated, or less than because they’re accessing that support,” says Amanda Peters, M.S., a school psychologist and special education consultant in Derry Township School District.
Mental health in schools
School psychologists across Pennsylvania are providing a wide variety of services to students every day. Working alongside teachers, administrators, school nurses, school counselors, social workers, and others, they meet academic, mental health, and behavioral needs of students and others in the school community.
“Our goals include improving academic achievement, promoting positive behavior and mental health, supporting diverse learners, creating safe and positive school climates, strengthening family-school partnerships, and improving school-wide assessment progress in both academics and behavior,” says JoAnn Coslett, Ed.D., a school psychologist at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg.
But for most school psychologists, there is no “typical” day.
“Our job is to be responsive to the needs of our stakeholders,” Peters says. “At any given time, we are responding to a student need, a teacher need, an administrator need, a school board need. Our job is really one of responsiveness.”
Lillenstein sees his role as lifting up others within the community.
“Our day is heavily involved with helping others to become better at what they do,” he says. “Whether it’s helping a student to become better at managing their behavior, managing emotions, or improving their academics. Or helping a teacher to improve their instruction, improve their behavior management skills, or improve their outlook on life. Every day looks a little bit different carrying out that mission.”
But depending on the school district, some school psychologists have a more difficult time than others fulfilling these duties. While every school district in Pennsylvania is required to utilize a school psychologist, Lillenstein explains, not every school building has one on staff. Some use the services of a school psychologist employed by the intermediate unit.
The issue lies in the ratio of students each school psychologist is responsible for serving. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the recommended ratio is one school psychologist for every 500 students. But in Pennsylvania today, the actual ratio is closer to 1 to 1,400.
“There is definitely a need for more school psychologists,” says Dr. Lilienstein, who also serves as the president of Association of School Psychologists of Pennsylvania. “As we get closer to that 1 to 500 ratio, we are able to have much more of an impact on our stakeholders, and we are able to be much more preventative and less reactive.”
Mental health and safety
Matthew Ferchalk, Ed.D., admits he is lucky. He is a school psychologist at Brecknock Elementary School in Eastern Lancaster County School District and every building in his district has a school psychologist and school counselor on staff. He recognizes the struggles that are presented for districts without these resources.
“Many of our students show significant and long-term emotional and behavioral difficulties,” he says. “Not having access to mental health services in the school forces our students to overcome these barriers alone without guidance or support even if they don’t possess the necessary skills to do it themselves. Many will not be successful and the consequences for the students, our schools, and our communities are well known and range from distressing to unthinkable.”
Of course, the unthinkable became a reality in February when 17 students and teachers lost their lives during a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The tragic event served as a catalyst in our state, and across the country, and the urgent call to action led to the formation and swift work of the School Safety Task Force (see box).
“It’s no secret that students today are at more of a risk for mental health issues than ever,” says Dr. Coslett. “Students struggling with anxiety are far too frequent. Efforts and resources aimed at supporting students and families can only help to improve the outlook for the student, school, family, and community.”
Mental health at home
There are simple steps that parents can take at home to help their children maintain their mental health.
“Listen,” Dr. Lillenstein says. “Put down the phone. Turn off the T.V.”
Peters reminds parents to listen actively, not passively. “Be present for the response. Ask questions. Give your full attention to your child,” she says.
Dr. Lillenstein notes that an easy way to do this is by sitting down at the kitchen table together.
“Eat as a family at the dinner table,” he says. “That’s a great way to start to have conversations. It’s easy to implement. And it only takes 20-30 minutes out of a day, but it can have a huge impact.”
Dr. Ferchalk reiterates the importance of giving your children the gift of your time and attention.
“More than anything else, parents need to spend time with their children,” Dr. Ferchalk says. “I know this as both a psychologist and as a father of two. Our children need to have a strong connection and relationship with us. We are their example to follow, their support, their source of love and compassion. The best thing we can do is be there for them. Having this strong relationship allows us to recognize when our children need support and creates an environment where they feel comfortable asking for help.”
Cassandra Davis, a communications coordinator and freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to Central Penn Parent.