State of Maine: Social services at school

Recent news about youth in Maine is alarming. A study in the Pediatrics journal of the American Medical Association says Maine is the state with the highest number of children with a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety or attention deficit disorder.

That translates to about 25 percent of our kids, or about six kids in a class of 25. The “Kids Count” data book says that in that same hypothetical class of 25 first-graders, five will need special education services, two were born drug-exposed, six have experienced two or more “adverse childhood experiences,” four live in poverty and 11 qualify for free or reduced price school meals.

There’s more. Among Maine’s K-12 public school students, 2,271 were reported homeless in 2017, a number that is rising significantly each year. Over half were “doubled up,” meaning living with relatives, friends or other non-relatives. Another 472 were in shelters, 345 in hotels/motels and 71 were “unsheltered.” (U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness)

Compounding all of this is the fact that Maine does not have sufficient treatment services for any of this. The end result? Maine schools are now playing a bigger role in mental health diagnosis and treatment and the housing and nutritional needs of their students.

One argument for providing these services at school is akin to Willie Sutton’s response to why he robbed banks: “That’s where the money is.” For youth services, school is where the kids are. This makes sense, but it has profound implications for school programs, school funding and the school buildings themselves.

The professional services required for at-risk youth are complex and expensive. We should be offering them somewhere, right? So why not at the schools? But if we are going to shift this responsibility to the schools, they will need the resources to fulfill them. One of those for which most schools are entirely unprepared is space.

No longer are schools a matter of classrooms with desks lined up in rows, a gym and a cafeteria. Schools need private spaces where teachers, social workers, nurses or school safety officers can meet with students one-on-one. An essential part of the planning process for new school construction is to consider this type of space and incorporate it into new buildings.

Any school building that is a decade old, or even less, probably comes up short on private spaces. Schools are improvising, displacing administrative staff or using other “borrowed” spaces, sometimes literally closets, for counseling or other support services. This is less than ideal.

Natural light, multipurpose spaces, open floor plans, study cubicles, classrooms without walls and “maker spaces” are all part of the school construction vocabulary today.

Within schools, services offered may include physical and mental health, dental and vision care. School employees or contractors include nurses, social workers and psychologists covering areas from smoking cessation to weight control, asthma management to teen pregnancy and truancy. This professional staff sees students and their parents in school and at home.

There may be counseling for students with alcoholism or domestic violence in their homes, for students at risk academically, or students suffering from depression, addiction or other conditions that affect their ability to learn. Where once we had “guidance counselors” who dealt with post-high school careers or education, now school counseling includes working with academic, social and emotional needs across the spectrum, including cyber-bullying and gender definition.

Whether schools fully combine educational, health and social services or not, the need already exists for dedicated space with adequate privacy to support students with complex health and social needs.

The ability of schools to offer these services in an appropriate setting depends on whether school buildings are planned with them in mind. All this is going to require an extensive conversation about whether, when and how to make the major policy change of fully integrating health and educational services for the K-12 population.

Better to undertake a carefully planned transition to offering these services in schools than to take it on piecemeal when legislators pass bills to direct what schools must teach. If these services are now provided through the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, there is already some funding within the state budget to support them.

For communities considering major renovation or reconstruction of a school, how can they be sure their school will serve community needs for the life of the building? The key is flexibility, with learning spaces for both large and small groups and private space for one-on-one work with individuals.

Community input is an essential part of the planning process. The requirements of a contemporary school may be new to those whose kids are grown and gone. Changes in education will need to be explained and associated costs justified. Once built, a school will be the center of community life for a very long time. It’s crucial to get it right.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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