The Day – Schools in Southeast Connecticut grapple with student mental health challenges

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

This has led to a need for more mental health supports to deal with an increase in the number of school disruptions – fights, bullying and threats or rumors of violence on social media which have led to school closures in the region. and the state. Some students are just trying to figure out how to act in a classroom after almost two years of absence.

Kate Dias, teacher and president of the Connecticut Educational Association, said schools are trying to solve a plethora of mental health issues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. These needs reached even the youngest of children.

“We have a lot of needs that are different from those before the pandemic. We are trying to find a balance between normal and good, nothing is normal, ”said Dias. “We are all going back to these really changed schools. We have a lot of students who don’t resolve very well and who don’t handle conflict very well. Some are taking action. “

She said there is a nationwide shortage of substitutes and certified teachers, putting even more strain on teachers, who already have a long way to go.

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

There are many examples of disruptions in schools in Southeast Connecticut.

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

It all started in September, when a social media trend popularized on the video-sharing platform TikTok led some students to remove paper towel and soap dispensers from the walls and toss some in the wall. the toilets, which clogged them.

Subsequent incidents in the girls’ bathroom included verbal and then physical assaults shared on video via social media. The situation underscored racial tensions at the school which the students said were ignored by the administration. In November, about a quarter of the population of East Lyme High School walked out of the classroom to protest what they described as the failure of school officials to speak out against racist statements and actions.

In October, Waterford High School chose to hold part of its Spirit Week celebration, ‘New Years Eve’ for the elderly, outside due to COVID-19 security measures in place. Instead, a large group of students opted to walk through the halls of the school and began an offensive chant when a member of staff intervened. School principal Andre Hauser sent a letter to parents explaining the breach of trust and cut back on planned school-wide activities.

In November, a student at New London High School was arrested in an assault on a school administrator. The administrator was reportedly cursed, slapped and punched by the student. Several arrests resulted from a brawl involving at least eight high school students later that same month. Parents showed up at the school on November 16 due to rumors circulating on social media of a shooting there. The rumor turned out to be unfounded; a student said he saw a gun which turned out to be a cell phone.

In Montville in November, a brawl between two students outside Saint Bernard School, apparently on film, led school principal Don Macrino to send a letter to parents expressing his disappointment.

“Not only is this an annoyance to the school, but it’s part of a larger problem of unsupervised Internet use by students,” Macrino wrote. “At any other time, it would be considered ‘just a school fight.’ However, in these busy times with immediate access and the freedom to spread wildly exaggerated rumors, I wanted to get you the facts. “

As recently as last week, a minor was charged in an incident at Norwich Free Academy, where staff found two fake firearms. The incident prompted students and parents to organize a rally against violence and bullying at school on Saturday.

“In difficulty with the adjustment”

Amanda Frechette, a mental health clinician at the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut, said children suffer from trauma, anxiety and depression and there has been an increase in the intensity of cases being treated by them. group advisers.

Child & Family Agency operates free school health centers that provide outpatient medical and mental health services in 13 schools.

The agency works hand-in-hand with educators in Groton and New London, places that Frechette says have done a good job of recognizing the issues and not only hired school psychologists and social workers, but s ‘is associated with the agency to offer advice to individuals and groups.

“A lot of kids have a hard time adjusting,” Frechette said.

She said the students were trying to catch up on social skills and relationships they didn’t get a chance 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 the same way,” Frechette said. “Now they are starting to rebuild them.”

Just as adults have had to adjust to a physical return to work, so children try to do the same but lack the maturity to handle it appropriately. Students also endured hardships at home, including isolation, loss in family, unemployed parents, or a number of traumatic events, such as homelessness.

In New London, a neighborhood of around 3,100 students, the response has been a multi-pronged approach to involving students and families, identifying students in need of counseling, and taking safety concerns seriously.

The district has an in-school mentoring program, bringing in Connecticut College students to work with youth. It increased the number of after-school programs and family engagement activities, instituted a Daily Quiet Classes initiative, organized recovery circles, and assigned special safety committees to each school to address student and family concerns. .

Meanwhile, New London school superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said the district still faces COVID-19 – 116 cases affecting 834 people to date.

The district faces a sharp increase in the number of homeless students, defined as children who do not have a fixed, regular and adequate night residence. In October, the district reported that 13 students were living in a shelter, 189 students had doubled down with another family or friend, and 18 were living in a hotel. The vast majority of these students are of color.

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

Reflect and evolve

Rivera is quick to point out that the vast majority of students are managing the transition well. About 5% of the student body needs services. Other students have lost “school readiness,” she said.

District disciplinary data is still preliminary, but in New London as of December, 224 disciplinary actions had been taken against 168 students. These 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 sanctioned in the 2018-19 school year.

Ritchie said the focus remains on providing supports to students and why the district has added school psychologists, social workers, wellness workers and other mental health specialists to the schools. schools while expanding its efforts to conduct home visits to reach families. Federal pandemic relief grants fund some of these positions, but the district is also looking to fill about two dozen paraprofessional positions to provide relief to certified teachers who “have their hands full.”

Ritchie said she expects students to get back on track with the right support after a period of adjustment. New London has made a concerted effort to reach out to 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 are in an evolutionary phase. We are working on the development and modification of the education system, to meet the children where they are, ”said Dias, President of ACE. “We try to adjust a system so that it really reflects new patterns of behavior, new needs and new understanding of student learning. I don’t think education will be the same a year from now. We try to think and evolve. We desperately need more support in schools and that will take time to build. These are growing pains.

Day staff editors Elizabeth Regan and Claire Bessette contributed to this report.

g.smith@theday.com

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