The Kids Are Not Alright, Part 2: Student Support Services

Despite numerous resources, many students learning remotely do not feel provided for.

  • Thursday, March 25, 2021 5:07pm
  • News

By Halle Wyatt and Savannah Butcher

For the Vashon Riptide

Note: This is part two of a three-part series on student mental health by the Vashon Riptide, the student newspaper of Vashon High School. Part 1, published last week, detailed in part the responses of a survey sent by the Riptide to students to gauge mental health. Part 3 will be re-published in The Beachcomber next week. To read the series in its entirety, and other recent student journalism, visit riptide.vashonsd.org.

Content warning: This series covers triggering topics such as self-harm, suicide, mental health issues, and trauma. If these make you uncomfortable, we implore you to stop reading. If you are struggling with these issues yourself, please reach out to any of the resources below. If you are dealing with suicidal thoughts or actions, please make a trusted friend, family member, or school staff member aware.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255; National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673); Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention: 1-800-931-2237; S.A.F.E. (Self Abuse Finally Ends): 1-800-DONT-CUT; National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264); GriefShare: 1-800-395-5755; Drug Abuse National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357; Family Violence Prevention Center: 1-800-313-1310; National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE.

Although a large number of students feel overwhelmed and unsupported by the school during online learning, 31.9 percent of respondents to a recent survey by The Riptide said they felt completely supported by the school.

The supports come in a variety of forms, the most notable being administrators and counselors frequently meeting with students to offer assistance, and to re-engage them in their education.

Administrators such as VHS Principal Danny Rock also pay attention to attendance, grades, behavioral changes, and disengagement. Often when the administration investigates changes in behavior such as drug usage and fighting on school campus, they discover mental health problems driving such behavior.

“There are multiple ways we find out when students are [struggling] in terms of their mental health. It is almost always some form of referral — [whether] it is a teacher, parent, [peer], or self-referral — someone is telling a school official that someone is not doing well. Sometimes it comes through our anonymous alerts,” Rock said.

Although these changes in behavior are easy to spot, they are not always an accurate depiction of the person’s mental health. Furthermore, some students do not show these warning signs and struggle silently under the administration’s radar.

“We have students who are attending classes every day with their cameras on, completing all the work. Because they seem engaged, you might think they’re fine, but I’m finding that is not the case,” McMurray counselor Kailey Pearce said. “A lot of [engaged students] are tackling anxiety, or thinking more about suicide and self-harm. We have everyone in between, like students who aren’t engaged and their mental health is tanking, and high achievers who are doing fine.”

Because it is impossible for staff to be aware of every student’s mental health struggles, the administration has resorted to anonymous surveys.

“Every two years, the state issues the Healthy Youth Survey; it was supposed to happen last spring and of course it didn’t,” Rock said. “The Healthy Youth Survey is anonymous so we get profiles around how much anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness may be present in our student population.”

Rock, vice-principal Andrew Guss, and VHS counselors Paul Peretti and Tara Vanselow all take the time to frequently meet with students. After discovering a struggling student through either a referral or through the attendance system’s automated alerts, Guss will continually reach out to the student to set up a meet. If neither the student nor their parents respond, he will even make a house visit to ensure his student’s well-being.

During these meets, Guss first takes the time to get to know the student better and discuss the things in their life that they care about, or cared about.

“I’d like to focus on the things that you can control and creating routines, like daily structures — don’t give [your hobbies/passions] up, you do everything you can to hold onto it… the second you let something slip, you’re taking that away from yourself and all of a sudden it’s become a negative routine,” Guss said.

Guss works with the student on mapping out routines and schedules for themselves in order to create a more manageable structure to online learning. By meeting with the student at least once or twice more, he helps them commit to those schedules. Occasionally, parents will sit in on the meets.

With administrative permission, Guss and other staff have invited students to come work and attend their online classes in the great hall at the high school. With appropriate social distancing, the students can create stable routines and meet more frequently with staff when needed.

“[Working at school] will provide some people exactly what they need: structure… That solves half of our students’ problems,” Guss said. “It’s not widely known because we typically only have these conversations when there’s a severe need… and not everyone takes us up on that… If you would benefit from working on [the] school campus, please contact [me].”

He recommends these meetings to anyone who is struggling with online school and feeling like they have lost a safety net to access school support.

“I will talk to anybody whenever. Your counselors will do the same. Mr. Rock will do the same. If I get an email from a student… I will make time and I will change meeting times if necessary,” Guss said.

“It’s so much easier to catch me in the hallway or just to pop into the office than it is to email or set up a Google Meet appointment with me… If [students] can’t find a path to resolution immediately — if it feels like there’s barriers or delays in the way — [they] don’t even try.”

Katie Konrad, a nurse practitioner at Vashon Natural Medicine, also believes that students should seek out help from teachers and counselors.

“The students who have been explicit with their teachers about their challenges have tended to get more support than those who have not been as assertive about their struggles,” Konrad said. “I encourage students to really advocate for themselves, be proactive, and get the help they need.”

Outside of working one-on-one with students, administrators and staff also take the time to meet together multiple times a week as part of the Student Support Team (SST). Besides Rock, Guss Peretti and Vanselow, the SST is made up of Moana Trammell, the addiction counselor and an employee of the Puget Sound Educational Service District, Neighborcare therapists such as Anna Waldman, school psychologist Barbara Van Eeckhout, and the school nurse Sarah Day. With signed confidentiality consent agreements with specific students, the SST can discuss individual needs in more depth.

“We’re always talking about the students, and we’re collaborating and coming up with action plans to help particular students in need… over a variety of issues,” Peretti said.

There is also a ninth-grade team composed of counselors and ninth-grade teachers who meet weekly to discuss the unique needs, struggles, and well-being of freshmen.

“I think our ninth graders always struggle. That’s probably the most challenging… grade level,” Peretti said. “The students that don’t engage and are not successful in ninth grade typically have a harder time in the years to come in high school. If they fall behind, it’s a real challenge for them to get caught up.”

In order to help students who are falling behind, the school offers resources such as the directed study program, which provides extra credits while students can use the time to work on missing assignments and make-up work for failed classes. Counselors are also rescheduling classes to accommodate students.

There is also a pre-existing program, Pathways, which is an alternative school within a school that has always had between ten and twenty students each year. Peretti expects more will be admitted next year as the district reopens.

“Each student can work through online classes in almost any subject to get caught up in classes they may have not been successful in earlier, or even to get ahead,” Peretti said. “It’s a safety net, but it’s also a program to help students who have different ways of learning. They may struggle in the earlier school program because they have a harder time with that style of learning.”

Despite these resources, many students do not feel provided for. In the survey, the most common suggestions were more deadline and absence flexibility, more anonymous support systems, and support groups for specific illnesses and disorders.

The Riptide survey results also showed that many students are unaware of the mental health resources that are available, specifically therapy and counseling. This suggests the high school has not done enough in advertising their support services, such as Neighborcare, leaving a number of students without any help.

“I haven’t gotten any professional diagnosis because I don’t know anything about finding help, and I don’t know how to ask my parents about it,” an anonymous respondent said.

The VHS counselors will happily make time to meet with students no matter how large or small the problem. If you are in need of help, please email them at aguss@vashonsd.org, tvanselow@vashonsd.org or pperetti@vashonsd.org.

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