Montgomery Co. schools respond to increased student mental health needs

At a recent board of education meeting in Montgomery County, Maryland, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School teacher — and parent of a high school student — Monika Choinska-Powell described students as being in a “mental health crisis.”

“Every day I encounter students crying, sitting alone against the wall, curled up, and just wanting to be left alone,” Choinska-Powell told board members. “I see students who are experiencing anxiety so badly that they need to leave the classroom multiple times during one class period.”

Her testimony came as school officials confirmed a spike in student violence, including 48 reported assaults within the first months of school.

Dr. Christina Conolly, the director of psychological services for Montgomery County Public Schools, said that there was certainly an increase in student behaviors that ranged from verbal exchanges to serious fights.

“Many of them are struggling, coming back to being in person again. It’s as if over the past 18 months, they have forgotten how to socialize with each other again,” Conolly said.

Student behaviors and trauma

Conolly added that some students experienced trauma, including the loss of a parent or other relative, and that behaviors were evident at all grade levels, with kids expressing anxieties and frustrations in different ways.

Conolly said that these negative behaviors take place on a continuum.

“A lot of times, if there’s a fight, it starts off as a conflict that’s going on — a verbal back and forth — and it starts on social media,” she said. “Then all of the sudden, by the time it gets to school, it turns into this physical altercation.”

When asked if she thought the elimination of the school resource officer program played a role in the fighting and assaults that have been reported, Conolly said that’s difficult to say.

“I can’t say that if they were there, these things wouldn’t happen” said Conolly.

She did say while the SRO program has ended, the county police department has CEOs,  Community Engagement Officers, who provided public safety coverage to schools in their assigned areas. The school system also developed teams that deal with safety and security and student well-being.

Student well-being teams were built with administrators, pupil-personnel workers, school counselors, school psychologists and staff members “with strong connections to students” according to MCPS guidelines.

Conolly said the student well-being teams were designed “to develop interventions and supports for that student and potentially wraparound supports for their family.”

How schools are trying to help

The safety and security teams deal with things like “restorative justice,” applied as a result of disciplinary issues or to address problems in the school community. The mission of the two different teams can intertwine.

“Schools have to have a balance of physical and psychological safety,” said Conolly.

“We are seeing increased rates of students who are being referred to our Montgomery County Crisis Center due to issues of self-harm and suicidal ideation,” she added. “We didn’t see this last year because students were home.”

The school system also included the Signs of Suicide (SOS) program, established in 2018. That program taught secondary school students to ACT, or to acknowledge a friend’s feeling, how to care for them and how to tell a trusted adult.

Some of the initiatives to deal with mental health are student-led. The “Our Minds Matter” clubs were an outgrowth of the former Josh Anderson Foundation, founded in Fairfax County and named for Josh Anderson, a teenager who died by suicide in 2009.

Conolly said that, before the pandemic, there was one chapter of the Our Minds Matter clubs in Montgomery County schools. That number has grown to 17.

“Kids are learning more about mental health, and the clubs help promote information and advocacy around mental health topics,” she said.

Resources for Montgomery County families

Families who have concerns about their children’s mental health should feel free to contact the schools for assistance. “If you see your child’s behavior is changing in some way,” the school said, “come talk to us so that we can work together” to come up with helpful interventions to support the student emotionally and academically.

On Saturday, the Montgomery County Public Schools will have an online resource fair with a question-and-answer session at noon. It will be live streamed on YouTube.

Parents and students can also access “free and confidential emotional support” through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or by calling 1-800-273-8255.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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