Students struggling with mental health

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Brookings High School experiences surge of student overdoses

BROOKINGS – “Within an eight-day period, we have seen four instances of a student overdose in our district,” Brookings School Board President Mellissa Heermann said at Monday night’s meeting. “That number breaks me.”

Superintendent Klint Willert said, to the extent that he knows and understands, that the first overdose occurred in the school environment Oct. 28, when a student purposefully ingested pills in an attempt to overdose. The student was transported via ambulance to the hospital. 

The second overdose occurred on Oct. 29. A student ingested pills either in the late evening or early morning and came to school, which initiated a “school-based response” requiring an ambulance to transport the student to the hospital. 

Over the following weekend, a third suspected overdose occurred outside of the school, in a private setting. The district was made aware of the situation. 

On Nov. 1, a fourth overdose occurred. Similar to the second situation, a student ingested pills either in the morning or late evening and came to school, which initiated a school response. The student was transported by ambulance to the hospital, according to Brookings High School Principal Paul von Fischer.

The overdoses were either from prescription and/or over-the-counter medications, district officials said. 

All four students received medical treatment, to the district’s knowledge, and are in the process of recovering. 

Willert said following the incidents, parents were immediately contacted and the school counselors worked closely with those who were around the students.

According to Willert, the district is assessing these four overdoses as suicide attempts.

“We’ve never had any medical practitioner tell us these were attempted suicides. This is our assessment, this is the school district’s assessment that warrants a richer and bigger response,” Willert said.

On Nov. 3, the high school sent out a letter to Brookings High School parents and guardians. The letter included the following paragraph: “Throughout this school year, but more specifically during the last month, we have seen an increase in the number of mental health issues among our students. We specifically have seen a large number of students expressing suicidal thoughts, and we have also experienced an increase in suicide attempts. This is greatly concerning to our BHS counseling team and BHS staff, and we are working to provide as many supports as we are able to these students in crisis.”

“We know that when an individual makes a conscious choice like that, there are some much deeper concerns that need to be dealt with,” Willert said. 

BHS presentation

During Monday night’s school board meeting, von Fischer and Vice Principal Justin Stanley presented to the board some recent concerns regarding student mental health and behavioral issues inside the high school.

One of the major points that von Fischer and Stanley made explicitly clear is that there is a “changing culture inside the high school.”

Willert said that this changing culture is the result of a shift in the student population toward the attitude of “non-compliance.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s a pervasive issue, but it’s a significant issue,” Willert said. “Where we have a smaller subset of students that are not approaching this educational experience as a partnership with families, the school district and the teachers, but they are absolutely defiant and non-compliant to the point where they are disrupting the environment.”

Von Fischer also noted that an “increasing number of students are not finding success.” He compared the school process to a three-legged stool, with the “legs” of the stool being attendance, academics and behavior. Without one of the legs, the stool won’t stand up (the student won’t be successful). Von Fischer stated that there are “some students, in theory and in practice, who are wood circles sitting on the floor, who aren’t coming, who aren’t participating, and when they are there, maybe there are behaviors.”

Stanley explained that he has been in meetings with a lot of parents and students recently, due to the rise in truancy. He said that roughly nine out of 10 of the students he speaks to have “anxiety and depression” as an obstacle that is keeping them from coming to school.

“We have greatly increased mental health concerns,” von Fischer said. “The depression and anxiety are real, and they are living in our community, right next to us, could be us.”

Stanley explained further that teachers, “veteran teachers” including himself, are seeing “firsts” in the building and hallways this year. He gave an example of a teacher who wanted to stay out of the hallways.

Willert said that examples of this include vulgar tirades in the hallways or students just outright refusing to go to class.

“‘Make me,’ statements like that,” Willert said. “A teacher in a power struggle with a non-compliant, defiant student, and the challenge then became to what extent do I as classroom teacher engage in that discussion knowing that I have a classroom that I have to start teaching of 20-25 students over here, and am I going to defer my obligation to the 25 as I address these two or three students out in the hallway or not.”

Willert said there are some students who “cross the first threshold” by entering in the doors in the morning but then refuse to go to class. Instead, he says, that they will walk the halls or they’ll go hang out in the parking lot.

“They are just not engaged in school,” Willert said.

Von Fischer spoke next about staff concerns in the building, explaining that many, including himself, are feeling overwhelmed. He said others have expressed that they feel like “too much is happening.”

“I think our teachers are feeling pressure because there are academic expectations, but these social expectations and social challenges are trumping the academic expectations,” Willert said. “We do have a demographic of our students, a segment of our student population, that really is not responsive to those expectations. Moving beyond non-compliance to flat out defiance.”

Both von Fischer and Willert explained that these issues are not unique to the district and occurring around the entire state. 

Causes

“What’s causing this? What’s causing some of the changes we are seeing? Bottom line, I don’t know,” von Fischer said. “These are our best guesses.”

Von Fischer cited the first possible reason as “mental health changes.” He referred back to a Search Survey that was conducted last spring, with results publicized this fall. Some of the responses from that survey were given to parents in the Nov. 3 letter and are as follows:

“37 % of our students reported being frequently depressed and/or attempted suicide.”

“33% of our students reported having positive self-esteem.”

“44% of our students reported having a sense of purpose.”

“26% of our current seniors have ever tried to kill themselves.”

“23% of our current sophomores have ever tried to kill themselves.”

Von Fischer and Willert both explained that juvenile justice reform and the mandatory attendance change in the state that occurred a number of years ago as another possible cause. 

“A possible cause is the change in student behavior due to social media and technology,” von Fischer said. “We’ve got these super computers in our hands all the time, and how does that change who we are and what we do and how we feel about ourselves?”

Willert concurred that “unremittent access to technology” could be another possible cause.

Willert said that parents should have a talk with their child about how they use their cell phone.

“Parents need to talk about the rights and responsibilities of utilizing a device like (a cell phone),” Willert said. “We can either sit back and admire the problem, or we can start working together to find a solution. That’s my message to parents.”

Solutions

“Hope is not a strategy at this point,” school board member Van Fishback said at Monday’s school board meeting. 

Right now, Brookings High School is planning a suicide screening for all students, according to Willert. The high school will implement a program called Signs of Suicide (SOS), and it will take place as soon as it can be arranged – ideally before the Thanksgiving holiday, if possible. As the school evaluates screening results, students identified as the highest need will have the first opportunity for assistance. Brookings High School counselors will reach out to mental health partners in the community to assist with the screening and follow up.

“The goal is to figure out who is struggling and who is facing challenges,” Willert said. 

Further steps that were discussed at the school board meeting included the creation of an “alternative school,” which would be funded by the ESSER (COVID-19 relief) dollars. The plan could include hiring two certified teachers to begin an alternative option for “students not finding success” in the current school environment. This option would start in the second semester, and the vision would be “a supported, online environment.” The plan is tentative, and the location is still to be decided. 

Finally, Willert wants to put a “call to parents.”

“Talk to your kids, have a conversation, know what they are doing, know who their friends are, find out where they are hanging out and what are they are doing,” Willert said, saying as well that parents need to remember “who pays the phone bill.”

At the end of the BHS presentation at Monday’s school board meeting, Heermann had a request for parents.

“Are your weapons at home locked up in a safe place? Are your prescriptions in an accessible location to your family or are they put away? Can you do a little extra check in with your students? Can we have a little more communication between teachers checking in?” Heermann said. “The number of students we can lose is zero.”

A list of community mental health resources can be found online at https://bit.ly/3nRITl3. Brookings Behavior Health and Wellness is the community’s mental health and substance abuse center. It offers 24/7 crisis on-call support to Brookings County residents at 605-697-2850. Avera Behavioral Health also offers 24/7 inpatient assessment and triage at 1-800-691-4336.

The 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 800-273-8255.

Contact Addison DeHaven at [email protected]

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