Trauma-informed care, which focuses on sensitivity to students’ experiences, and state support for mental health have paid off big in Wisconsin, state and local officials told U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and other members of the Federal School Safety Commission at its second field hearing, which took place in Adams, Wis., on Tuesday.
The Badger State’s system of supports for mental health took center stage at the hearing, which included a class tour and roundtable discussion at Adams-Friendship Middle School.
The commission, chaired by DeVos, was set up in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The commission also includes Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services; Kirstjen M. Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security; and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general. Only DeVos and Azar were on hand for the field visit.
Mental health has been a big theme for the safety commission. Its first “field visit” was focused on Maryland’s use of Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions, or PBIS. So far, the commission hasn’t visited a school that arms its teachers, even though Trump has held that up as a potential solution to combatting school shootings. DeVos has said that the panel won’t be looking at the issue of firearms, except in limited circumstances, to the chagrin of many educators.
During a roughly hour-long round table, there was virtually no discussion of school shooters, or shootings. Instead Wisconsin state and district representatives talked about the need to collaborate among agencies and work with parents to get students the mental health supports they need. There was also no direct request for more federal resources for mental health.
The state has a “school mental health framework,” which helps about 100 districts address mental health. The state works to train educators to offer a range of mental health services—from early identification to deep, sustained help. It also helps local communities partner with youth-service agencies, behavioral health providers, and others.
The state also provides resources for schools to help students navigate difficult transition points, get over the stigma that seeking mental health services can carry, and more.
The idea is to get students to say to themselves, “I may be wise because of the challenges I’ve faced, rather than less than [others],” said Sue McKenzie, the co-director of the Wisconsin Initiative for Stigma Elimination.
The program seems to be having an impact at the local level, said Crystal Holmes, the student support grant coordinator for Adams Friendship Area Schools. While a number of students told the district anonymously that they had considered suicide, there have been no suicides since the program—Project AWARE—came into existence.
“When it comes to mental illness, our kids are further along than adults right now,” she said. “They will reach out and ask for help.”
One focus of Adam’s approach: Training all sorts of school staff—even cafeteria workers—on “mental health first aid” to recognize potential trouble signs in individual students.
“Mental health first aid is much like medical first aid,” said Sam Wollin, the sherriff of Adam’s County. “When someone has a cut we apply pressure to the wound until we can provide further medical attention. With youth mental health first aid, we’re applying pressure to the emotional wounds until we can connect the youth with appropriate resources that within the community.”
Tonette Walker, the wife of Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, was also on hand for the meeting. Not present: Wisconsin’s state schools chief, Tony Evers, who is seeking to challenge Walker for the governorship this fall.
Evers, one of eight Democrats running for governor, this month unsuccessfully asked Attorney General Brad Schimel and the state legislature’s budget-writing committee for more money to expand mental health services in schools.
The Associated Press, Wire Service contributed to this article.