The Day – Southeastern Connecticut schools cope with student mental health issues

Via Peters

Educators say the post-pandemic return to in-person classes has revealed an unprecedented number of students who have fallen behind socially and emotionally.

It has led to a need for more mental health supports to deal with a jump in the number of school disruptions — fights, bullying and threats or rumors of violence on social media that have led to school lockdowns across the region and state. Some students are simply trying to figure out how to act in a classroom after nearly two years away.

Kate Dias, a teacher and president of the Connecticut Education Association, said schools are trying to address a plethora of mental health issues that have arisen out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those needs have reached even the youngest of children.

“We have a lot of needs that are different than pre-pandemic. We’re trying to find a balance point between normal and well, nothing is normal,” Dias said. “We’re all kind of returning to these schools really changed. We have a lot of students not really regulating well, and not really dealing with conflict well. Some are acting out.”

She said there is a national shortage of substitutes and certified teachers that is further taxing teachers, who already have a lot on their plates.

“Tensions are high especially in the high schools right now, like they are in the rest of the world. If things are playing out in the communities, tensions and stress, it gets magnified in the schools when you add teenage hormones to the mix,” she said.

There are numerous examples of disruptions in schools in southeastern Connecticut.

In East Lyme, high school bathrooms have been the backdrop for incidents ranging from vandalism to violence. 

It started in September, when a social media trend popularized on the video sharing platform TikTok led some students to pull paper towel dispensers and soap dispensers off the walls and throw some of them in toilets, which led to clogging.

Subsequent incidents in the girls’ bathrooms included verbal and then physical assaults shared on video through social media. The situation underscored racial tensions at the school that students say have been ignored by the administration. In November, roughly a quarter of the East Lyme high school population walked out of class to protest what they described as school officials’ failure to denounce racist statements and actions.

In October, Waterford High School opted to hold a portion of its Spirit Week celebration, the “New Year’s Eve Party” for seniors, outside because of COVID-19 safety precautions in place. A large group of students instead opted to traipse through the halls of the school and began an offensive chant when a staff member intervened. The school principal, Andre Hauser, sent a letter to parents explaining the breach of trust and scaled back planned schoolwide activities.

In November, a New London High School student was arrested in an assault on a school administrator. The administrator was reportedly yelled at, slapped and punched by the student. Multiple arrests resulted from a fight involving at least eight students at the high school later that same month. Parents showed up at the school on Nov. 16 because of rumors circulating on social media of a shooting there. The rumor turned out to be unfounded; one student reported seeing a gun that turned out to be a cellphone.

In Montville in November, a fight between two students outside Saint Bernard School, apparently being caught on video, led Head of School Don Macrino to send a letter to parents expressing his disappointment.

“Not only is it an embarrassment to the school, but it is part of a larger issue of unmonitored internet use by students,” Macrino wrote. “At any other time it would be considered ‘just a schoolhouse fight.’ However, in these highly charged times with immediate access and freedom to circulate wildly exaggerated rumors, I wanted to reach out to you with the facts.”

Just last week, a juvenile was charged in an incident at Norwich Free Academy, where staff found two fake guns. The incident prompted students and parents to organize a Rally Against School Violence and Bullying on Saturday.

‘Struggling with adjustment’

Amanda Frechette, a mental health clinician with the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut, said kids are experiencing trauma, anxiety and depression and there has been an increase in the intensity of the cases the group’s counselors are dealing with.

Child & Family Agency runs free school-based health centers that provide outpatient medical and mental health services at 13 schools.

The agency works hand in hand with educators in Groton and New London, places Frechette said have done a good job recognizing the issues and not only hired school-based psychologists and social workers but partnered with the agency to offer counseling for individuals and groups.

“A lot of kids are struggling with the adjustment,” Frechette said.

She said the students are trying to catch up on social skills and connections they didn’t have the opportunity to develop during a break away from school and their peers.

“With some of these kids, they weren’t in place where they could learn these skills in the same way,” Frechette said. “Now they’re starting to rebuild them.”

In the way adults have had to adjust to a physical return to work, kids are trying to do the same but without the maturity to manage it appropriately. Students have also endured hardships at home that have included isolation, a loss in the family, parents who are unemployed or any number of traumatic events, such as homelessness.

In New London, a district of about 3,100 students, the answer has been a multi-pronged approach to engage students and families, identify students in need of counseling and take issues of safety seriously.

The district has an in-school mentoring program, bringing in students from Connecticut College to work with youth. It has increased the number of after-school programs and family engagement activities, instituted a daily calm classrooms initiative, holds restorative circles and assigned special safety committees to each school to respond to student and family concerns.

Meanwhile, New London school Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said the district still has to contend with COVID-19 — 116 cases affecting 834 people to date.

The district is dealing with a large jump in the number of homeless students, defined as kids who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. As of October, the district reported 13 students living in a shelter, 189 students doubled up with another family or friend and 18 living at a hotel. The vast majority of those students are of color.

“Our need is so much greater this year, far beyond what we saw years ago,” said Carrie Rivera, assistant director of mental health services in New London schools.

Reflecting and evolving

Rivera is quick to point out that the vast majority of students are handling the transition well. It’s about 5% of the student population in need of services. Other students lost “school maturity,” she said.

District data on disciplinary actions is still preliminary but in New London, as of December, 224 disciplinary actions were taken against 168 students. Those include a mix of in-school and out-of-school suspensions, as well as five expulsions. State data shows New London reported 319 students were disciplined in the 2018–19 school year.

Ritchie said the emphasis remains on providing supports for the students and the reason the district has added school psychologists, social workers, wellness interventionists and other mental health specialists to the schools while expanding an effort to make home visits to reach families. Federal pandemic relief grants are funding some of those positions but the district also is seeking to fill about two dozen paraprofessional positions to provide relief for certified teachers who “have their hands full.”

Ritchie said she expects that after an adjustment period, students will get back on track with the appropriate support. New London has made a concerted effort to reach students at an earlier age with initiatives that include the opening this year of the New London Birth to Age 8 Early Childhood Resource Center.

“I think we’re in an evolutionary stage. We’re working on developing and changing the education system, to meet kids where they are,” said Dias, the CEA president. “We’re trying to adjust a system really to reflect the new behavior patterns, new needs and new understanding about student learning. I don’t think education is going to look the same in a year. We’re trying to reflect and evolve. We desperately need more supports in the schools and that’s going to take time to build. It’s growing pains.”

Day Staff Writers Elizabeth Regan and Claire Bessette contributed to this report.

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