Michigan schools help students with mental health

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

High school junior Brooklyn Filipiak saw the student, a new kid who transferred from another state, standing alone in the school hallway. She walked over and started talking.

Angela DeBrincat (center) and David Lewon (fourth from left, foreground) lead a session of Real Talk last month in Lake Orion, one of many ways in which schools deal with mental health.

“He was kind of at first, ‘Why is she talking to me?’ Then I asked more questions, and he opened up to me,” said Filipiak, who got the idea to chat up a new student last fall from a student leadership program at St. Louis Public Schools, north of Lansing.

Since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month that left 17 dead, Filipiak said she is keenly aware of students who stand alone, and she doesn’t hesitate to approach them. Her student leadership program, Students of Influence, taught her that students struggle every day with making friends at school and coping with problems at home. They walk around feeling disconnected from the world.

“Ever since the Parkland shooting, I have been more aware, and I have realized that this is serious and nothing to mess around with. It’s made me open my eyes that there are kids out there that may be struggling with making friends and being social,” Filipiak said. “If I see someone alone in the hallway, I don’t want them to be alone.”

In the wake of one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, school officials say opportunities that allow students to connect to each other are critical to building the emotional and social support young people needed to navigate life inside and outside school walls.

This focus on student mental health takes many forms in Michigan schools. Some use leadership programs to get kids to put down electronics and reconnect so they can watch for red flags in each other. Other schools rely on school social workers who work with students to manage stress and workloads.

In the twice-a-year Real Talk program, Lake Orion students and adult volunteers discuss mental health issues.

Some districts have full-scale programs that address mental health through bullying prevention, restorative justice with a focus on reconciliation and student-led groups that help young people understand their stress and teach coping skills.

Only some Michigan schools can boast of these programs. Others have kept their focus on academics, an approach that should be revisited, according to Ron Berger, an expert in social and emotional learning with EL Education, a New York-based organization that works to transform schools with character education.

‘There are warning signs’

Addressing the mental health of young people in school is a difficult challenge with no easy answer, Berger said, but schools have a place to start and should consider doing so now.

“The issue of kids not feeling a part of school culture is something schools can immediately work on,” said Berger, a former public school teacher for 28 years. “We can do a better job. Those who end up being shooters are those who felt pushed aside. It’s important we work on school cultures where everyone belongs.”

Lake Orion Community Schools began addressing the mental health of its students in a more serious way more than a decade ago after at least 11 students and former students committed suicide within a five-year period.

Lake Orion Superintendent Marion Ginopolis said the district built a schoolwide mental health approach that reaches across grades, ages, genders and economic status.

It hosts a twice-a-year event called Real Talk where students and adult volunteers gather for a day of open dialogue and discussion around mental health. Students are encouraged to talk about everything from school stress to family life to academics to peer interaction.

An adult volunteer asks personal and often painful questions. When the answer is yes, each steps forward. The idea is to show other students they are not alone when it comes to their problems.

“When you hear the stories, they are very honest and open. It’s a very safe environment. You don’t realize the kinds of things they are going through and thinking,” Ginopolis said. “They say: If you don’t want to go home, cross the line. It’s not one kid. It’s a lot of kids. If you think no one loves you, cross the line, or have you ever gone hungry, cross the line.

“I realized how many of our kids are very troubled, and they walk around knowing they are not the only ones.”

John MIles, teacher/organizer leads the students in the game of "random groups" during the Ice Breaker activities during Real Talk, a program in Lake Orion schools, that allows students to talk about issues that are important to them, including mental health.

Along with Real Talk, the district created the Students Offering Support organization, which has expanded to more than 270 students in grades 9-12. More than 3,500 high school students and 700 Lake Orion middle school students have received the support lessons. The district also has a Bully Busters program that helps younger students.

“There are warning signs, and we try to address those in these programs to give kids a chance to express what they are feeling. The programs are not the cure or the answer. It’s one more thing we are doing to help the kids,” Ginopolis said.

Lake Orion High sophomore Delaney Rogers, who described herself as a “floater” in school with a few stable friend groups, participated in a Real Talk session that she said opened her eyes to the fact that other teens are struggling with the same issues she is.

“It’s awesome. The people you don’t really realize are going through things you see them go through things you have. Then you make a lot of friendships. You go into small groups and talk about the things you crossed the line for,” Rogers said. “I made a lot of friends from that.”

Lake Orion high school counselor Michele Novak said she hears from students who bring small issues and large ones when they understand there’s a safe environment.

“It’s really an opportunity for students to be heard,” Novak said of the Real Talk event that took place Feb. 27. “Far too often, youth are told what to do, when to do it and how to act all day long, especially at school.”

‘A safe haven’

In the River Rouge School District, social and emotional learning has been a new focus at the Ann Visger Primary School, which educates students in grades K-5.

Principal Nichole German said the school has taken an approach it calls “trauma-informed” that allows educators to connect with students and give them the support. Many students in the urban school district located outside Detroit have experienced trauma in their young lives, from a parent dying to a parent in prison.

“We know students who have experienced physical abuse and neglect. We try to make sure school is a safe haven for them,” German said.

The school created a “calming room” for students. If a student is angry or upset, he or she is walked to the room that has calming music, stress balls and water. Inside some classrooms, calming corners have been created where students can experience meditation together or practice breathing techniques, German said.

“The students are responding well. The calming room brings them down right away,” she said.

Students participate in the game of "parachute" during the Ice Breaker activities of games during the morning session of Real Talk, a program in Lake Orion schools, that allows students to talk about issues that are important to them, including mental health.

‘Listen to them’

The Novi School District began a partnership with the University of Michigan Depression Center in 2017 to talk with teachers, staff and students about the trauma and depression children can experience, and how it can be addressed in schools.

Last school year, the district added social workers so all 10 of its building has at least one of its own, with the high school having two. The move was made because Novi is a “high-achieving and high-stress” district where students are predominately college-bound and have a heavy academic load, Superintendent Steve Matthews said.

“We have a strong belief that mental health is a strong component of student success,” Matthews said.

Since the Parkland shooting, Matthews said students have been encouraged to openly talk about their feelings and concerns about what happened there and what their fears are at home. They are getting support from social workers and teachers trained in adverse childhood experiences. Restorative circles are being used at the middle school to resolve conflict between students.

“We’ve told teachers that instead of reassurance, just listen to students and have them talk about it,” Matthews said. “There will be times when students need to tell you something important. Your job is to listen to them, not just reassure them. This affects students in different ways. Some struggle to feel safe. Others not all at. They need to know they have someone at school who cares about them.”

Phil Maxwell, who brought the Students of Influence program to St. Louis Schools in the 2014-15 school year and is a life coach at the district, said he thinks about accused gunman Nikolas Cruz and the shooting in Parkland and wonders what he could be doing differently in his own school.

“We need to be a community that is serving one another. Everything we will do in Students of Influence will be about that,” Maxwell said. “We have to have our eyes open and be prepared to walk with people who are struggling. I think of this young man and what was missed. I ask what should I be doing different in our school. Should I be in the hallways more? Spend more time with kids?

“We need to give people confidence to speak up. Let us find the help you need so you can get back into the community.”