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This story about trusted adults was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter 

AURORA, Colorado — When 12-year-old Jayla heard a friend had died by suicide during the pandemic, she was terribly upset. The loss was bad enough, but Jayla carried an extra weight. 

He told me he was having a bad day earlier that week and I didn’t ask him why. I told myself it was my fault because if I wasn’t so fixated on myself and if I would have called him to check up on him, he would still be here,” she said. She was in a “bad place.” 

While no one person or factor causes suicide, guilt is a common reaction among family and friends, experts say.

After her friend’s death, Jayla began having anxiety attacks andfoundher thoughts spiraling out of control. And she couldn’t really turn to anyone at home. “My mom works a lot and my dad really isn’t around, so I really don’t have somebody to talk to. And I don’t want to stress my grandma, she’s too old to worry about what I’m doing.” 

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She said having someone at school who could help was “really, really important.” And she knew exactly whom to turn to. 

Jayla goes to Columbia Middle School in Aurora, Colorado, a school that doesn’t just have one counselor on hand, but a full mental health team — plus teachers who have received training in how to respond to mental health issues. The school also offers an array of specialized online programs and curricula at every grade level. These supports were paid for with funding the community had approved for such programs, even before the pandemic made children’s mental health a top national concern.  

As schools across the country bring back thousands of students reeling from unprecedented mental health challenges, Aurora offers some lessons and evidence-based strategies they could look to in devising support. One of the district’s key strategies doesn’t cost any money at all: letting every student choose a “trusted adult.”

At the beginning of each semester, Jayla’s school sends every child a survey with photos of every adult in the building, asking the kids to name someone who they feel they can confide in, who cares for them as a person and who will find them the support they need.

Related: Nation’s skeletal school mental health network will be severely tested

Jayla’s trusted adult happened to be one of her school counselors, Katie Humphrey; during hallway conversation Jayla confided her guilt and anxiety over her friend’s suicide to Humphrey. The counselor then checked in on her every day to ask how she was doing and scheduled visits in her office.That really helped because I was not able to talk about him without crying,” Jayla said. Talking with Humphrey helped Jayla understand the suicide wasn’t her fault; without that heavy burden of guilt, she’s now able to focus more on her school work. “If it wasn’t for them asking me if I was OK and checking on me mental-health wise, I don’t think I would be in the place I am now.”

Katie Humphrey, the seventh grade counselor at Columbia Middle School, tries to normalize the idea of asking for mental health support to both children and parents. “I tell our students, it’s like tutoring,” she says. “If you need help in math, you go get a tutor. You go to your teacher for help. We’re kind of your tutors for mental health.” Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report

“Before we were just winging it. Now we have some signs to look for.”

Jessica Hyatt, a receptionist at Columbia Middle School

Even before the pandemic, one in five children in the U.S. showed signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder in any given year, a situation experts call a “silent epidemic.” Now, new studies warn of the pandemic’s potentially “debilitating effects” on children’s psychological, developmental and educational progress as anxiety, depression and loneliness increased over the last year. Federal and state governments have allocated extra money for mental health services and school districts across the country are scrambling to beef up supports. 

But communities that had already prioritized mental health were in a better position to deal with the unique challenges of the pandemic. In Aurora, Superintendent Rico Munn said the focus on mental health started years ago, to deal with an array of challenges schools faced there.

“We had some of the highest expulsion rates in the state. We had one of the lowest graduation rates in the state. And we had a whole host of indicators that we were not connecting with our students in the right way,” he said. 

Superintendent Rico Munn made mental health a priority when he came to Aurora Public Schools in 2013. He says having mental health professionals in every building is a “big relief to our teachers and our principals and other staff who saw this need but didn’t know how to respond to it.” Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report

District leaders decided the solution was to form better relationships with students. “Mental health supports play very much into that. Knowing who they are, what challenges they face and what supports they need, is fundamental to the way we think about our work,” he said.

The new focus has paid off. Since he started as superintendent in 2013, Aurora schools have seen a 23 point increase in graduation rates, from 56 percent in his first year to 79 percent in 2019, and a 55 percent decrease in police referrals, from 489 in 2013 to 220 in 2019 — improvements educators in Aurora say are a direct result of their work to connect with kids and better address students’ mental health needs. And while additional funding has been a significant factor in the district’s success, Munn said any district could replicate some of the simple strategies used by APS schools. 

“We were very actively involved in this work before we got the money. The money allowed us to go to a deeper level,” he said.

In November 2018, the school district in Aurora, a suburb 10 miles east of Denver, asked the community to increase local property taxes to help schools hire more teachers, pay for seatbelts in buses and provide a big boost to the district’s mental health program. The owner of a house worth $100,000 would pay approximately 100 dollars more each year. 

Aurora isn’t a wealthy community, but 60 percent voters supported the tax increase. The reasons for the support were varied: One teacher said they had been asking for more mental health services for years; a school administrator said the shooting in a Parkland, Florida earlier that year was fresh in voters’ minds; a principal suggested that the shooting in a local cinema five years prior, which killed 12 people and injured 70, still haunted the community. A parent believed people were motivated by memories of the 1999 Columbine high school shooting, which happened a half hour drive away. 

“I tell our students, it’s like tutoring. If you need help in math, you go get a tutor. You go to your teacher for help. We’re kind of your tutors for mental health.”

Katie Humphrey, a seventh grade counselor

The influx of money — $35 million annually, 40 percent of which was earmarked for mental health programs — allowed district leaders to hire more than 100 additional mental health professionals; contract with private health care organizations for specialized treatment; provide training and mental health supports for educators and expand mental health programming for all children.

Before the tax hike, just 10 percent of elementary school children had access to a mental health professional, now there’s at least one mental health care professional in every school building, and in some cases a team with multiple counselors, social workers and psychologists. At every middle and high school in Aurora, the ratio of mental health providers to students is 1:250. The national average ratio of school counselors to students, by contrast, is 1:430

Related: How one school is coping with mental health — Social workers delivering technology, food and counseling to kids at home, and open office hours all day — even when school is out

Katie Lafave, a school psychologist at the middle school, said that before the district received the additional funding, her work was purely reactive. “It was putting out fires a lot.” Now, she can do preventive work for all kids, plus spend time making sure her building has appropriate reading materials, designated calm spaces, stress balls and fidget toys. 

“If it wasn’t for them asking me if I was OK and checking on me mental-health wise, I don’t think I would be in the place I am now.” 

Jayla, 12

Previously, social worker Dawn Glassman would split her time between two schools. “I wasn’t able to be consistent,” she said. Now, she’s at just one high school — APS Avenues — and is part of a team consisting of four social workers, two counselors and an outside therapist. The ratio of staff to students is 1 to 44. “Honestly, it’s unheard of,” she laughs. Andrew Springsteen, a counselor at Rangeview High School said he used to have a case load of over 550 students, now it’s half that. In his school of 2,000 kids, there are 10 mental health professionals. Before I would never have been able to actually introduce myself and have a one-on-one personal conversation with every student,” Springsteen said. Now, he can and does.

Glassman said being part of a mental health team enables counselors, social workers and therapists to lean on and learn from one another, just as teachers do.“We meet regularly, we brainstorm solutions, we do case reviews. That really increases the quality of care and services that we provide for our students,” she said. 

In Columbia Middle School’s student support center, six students sit in a little circle, talking about what they call “small and big world problems.” Signs with cheery messages like “Shine Bright!” and “All About That HUG Life,” decorate the walls of the center, a repurposed administration space with six smaller offices for private conversations surrounding the main room. The kids in the circle offer their reasons for their first visit to the center: Taylor stopped by for a quiet space when her classmates were being “really annoying.” Sofia started to come by when she was stressed about getting good grades and was ready to “explode on somebody.” And Rose spoke to a counselor when her long-time friend began to withdraw.

The middle schoolers say they don’t feel any stigma about speaking to a counselor. It’s scary at first talking to someone when you never have before, but it is definitely worth it,” said Rose. 

Mental health professionals continue to do virtual “check-ins” with students who cannot attend class in person and are feeling isolated. During the pandemic, they regularly texted and spoke online with students and their families. Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report

During the pandemic, families have faced hunger, homelessness, layoffs and health challenges. They may not have the time or even the words to talk about mental health. Sometimes the adults at home are the cause of the stress. Just 60 percent of children in the district’s Covid student survey this year agreed that “home is a safe place.”

The students at the center, like many kids, say that some grownups might think they’re being lazy if they don’t complete school work. “They don’t understand that some kids can get depressed, some kids can have anxiety. It’s like something that happens in real life,” said Rose. Or as Taylor said, “Even parents say things like ‘What do you have to be stressed out about? You don’t pay the bills.’ And that kind of sucks.” 

Taylor said her parents are divorced but still live in the same town house. “They argue a lot because of the rent, the light bill, the water bill and everything. I feel stressed out because my mom cries and then it just makes me want to cry,” she said.

During those moments, she sits in her bedroom and texts her school counselors.

Related: Parents fighting, teachers crying — Grownup stress is hitting kids hard

The district has tried to normalize the concept of asking for mental health support, both for children and parents. “I tell our students, it’s like tutoring. If you need help in math, you go get a tutor. You go to your teacher for help. We’re kind of your tutors for mental health,” said Humphrey, who counsels seventh graders.

All students in Aurora Public Schools follow an age-appropriate curriculum on social and emotional health. They discuss topics such as bullying, toxic friendships and how to say sorry. Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report

Sofia Kent, the school social worker at Montview Elementary School, saidwhen the topic of mental health is presented in a very open, nonjudgmental manner it makes a big difference. If we say it in a way that feels shameful or we kind of shy away from it, then students pick up on that.” 

Mental health staff try to be visible, whether they’re giving high fives to kids when the buses arrive, sitting in on academic classes, or doing home visits, during or after school. They also organize fun activities like dunk tanks, dance battles and games. Jordan Glaude, a social worker at Elkhart Elementary, said just being around helps normalize her role. “The label ‘social worker’ can scare a lot of our parents.” But she said the stigma is reduced when they see her interacting with other school staff every day. 

Jennifer Rice, a social worker at Crossroads Transition Center, said she has open conversations early on with any parent who seems hesitant. “I think the biggest thing [they’re worried about] is ‘I’m not crazy.’ Or ‘my kid isn’t crazy.’ And so we just talk about it. What are your worries about it? What has you concerned about receiving these services? And then let’s move forward.” 

Jessica O’Muireadhaigh, who is in charge of mental health for the district, said the efforts are working. She said there has been an increase in the number of suicide assessments in the district this year, which she sees as a positive. That’s somebody saying ‘Help,’ right? They know where to go. The staff know what to look for. They’re catching it and having conversations and providing supports.” 

For kids who need more individualized, intensive support, the district has contracted with two medical institutions — Aurora Mental Health and HealthONE — to provide free mental health support for students. Twice a week, children and families can see their therapist in an office in the school building so they don’t have to travel. 

O’Muireadhaigh said the partnerships meanfamilies aren’t left trying to navigate a complicated system.” 

Liam, 11, is not yet back in school in person because he suffers from several health conditions, including acompromisedimmune system. He’s very isolated, so counselor Jay Brown, a sixth grade counselor, checks in on him weekly via Zoom to help provide a connection to school. He’s also Liam’s trusted adult. 

Brown keeps an eye out for any changes in Liam’s moods. “It can start as ‘I’m a little bit sad,’ but that could certainly change and get more severe and become more of a depression,” he said. 

On a recent visit, they talked about gaming club, exchanged recommendations on TV shows to watch and Liam vented about his little sister. “Everysinglenight at 8, when she’s going to bed, she yells. Loudly,” he complained. “It’s her bed time routine.” “Do you yell back?” asked Brown. “Nah, I just turn my TV waaaaay up.”

Counselor Jay Brown says during casual conversations online he looks for signs a student might be struggling. “It’s something I can monitor and check in every couple of days to make sure that it’s not becoming a red flag.” Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report

Liam said, in passing, that he might need more surgery this summer. He and Brown talked about how he feels. “OK,” Liam said matter of factly. “I’ve had many surgeries already.” Brown asked whether the Chromebook he dropped off is working; he made a note to check with Liam’s mother about the visit. But he was pleased Liam seemed in good spirits. 

Mental health staff say casual conversations with children — in hallways, during lunch time, at the bus stop, online — are key to building trust and relationships. Even without multiple counselors on hand, they say schools can build these kinds of relationships if every adult in the building is taught how to help support children’s mental health. 

Every year, all Aurora teachers and staff are required to receive training on how to recognize the signs a student might be struggling and how to refer the student for extra help. Certified trainers from the District’s mental health team of 43 offer the training sessions. In addition, before the 2020-21 school year, all teachers and staff were also required to take multiple sessions on how to give support to students in the classroom. The district also provides specialized training for certain teachers and staff members on inclusive environments, brain development and suicide and crisis prevention and response. 

Dawn Ganaway, a middle school counselor at Columbia, said even when staffed at the recommended ratios, there is no way to meet the needs of kids with severe issues while trying to create relationships with a caseload of hundreds of students. “And so we slowly started to change the thinking [to realizing] that we’re all in this together. They’re all our kids, and that everyone has a responsibility to make sure that our kids feel safe,” she said. 

Jessica Hyatt, Columbia Middle School’s receptionist, recently joined a three-hour session on how to recognize symptoms of suicidality and de-escalate behavior. “Before we were just winging it,” she said. “Now we have some signs to look for.” 

Hyatt said she’s learned that she plays a crucial role in helping students who have been sent to the main office stay calm. She’s also learned how to better read children. “There’s some that come just completely shut down and they don’t even look me in the eye. Then I’ll back off. Others seem to want to engage. And then I’ll say, ‘Can I get you some water?’ or ‘Is there anything that you need?’” 

Timothy Hall, a custodian, said he’s started asking kids how their day is going. “Sometimes they’ll let you in, sometimes they won’t,” he said. Either way, he sees his role as an extra pair of eyes in the building. “It’s important to keep notice of kids, to relay information to counselors.” 

Craig Lyle, Columbia Middle School’s principal, said that buy-in for the district’s mental health initiatives is something he looks for when hiring all new staff. “I say, ‘I know you’re a math teacher and we’ll talk about core curriculum and we’ll talk about how to teach math,” he said. “But math is a highly stressful class. And so when students become upset, when students shut down, how do you respond?’ So that is a very, very specific question we ask teachers in the interview process.”

Humphrey, the seventh grade counselor, said it’s now a point of pride to be named as a child’s trusted adult. “Our teachers take it very seriously when they say so-and-so’s named me a trusted adult.” The process also identifies kids who don’t feel connected, which sets off some soul-searching among the adults as they try to form connections with those children. “Like, why is this student not finding someone that they feel like they can trust?” said Humphrey.

Columbia Middle School’s principal, Craig Lyle, has seen much change in the ways mental health is addressed at his school. May 26, 20201. Photo by Sara Hertwig

O’Muireadhaigh said she’s proud that 89 percent of the students responding to a 2020-21 district survey said they felt connected to at least one adult in their school during the pandemic, an increase of 13 percentage points over the previous year. And 83 percent agreed with the statement, “I know where to get support if I need help with my feelings.” 

“That’s huge because that’s the number one protective factor that’s going to help kids feel connected and safe and a sense of belonging in school,” she said.

Research suggests there are benefits to investments in mental health services, including improved attendance, better test scores and higher graduation rates as well as lower rates of suspensions and expulsions. And that having mental health providers improves outcomes for students and can improve overall school safety.

While mental health professionals in schools can provide individual or group counseling, the district has contracted with two medical institutions Aurora Mental Health and HealthONE to provide free mental health support to students who need more individualized, intensive support. Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report

Research suggests there are benefits to investments in mental health services, including improved attendance, better test scores and higher graduation rates as well as lower rates of suspensions and expulsions. And that having mental health providers improves outcomes for students and can improve overall school safety.

This year, Superintendent Munn said it’s hard to show benefits quantitively because there is a “dearth of data.” The school year was so atypical, traditional measures such as attendance, behavior and course completion are skewed. “It doesn’t exist or it doesn’t make any sense because of the pandemic,” he said.  

But counselors said they have data for their individual schools showing fewer children are self-harming or being suspended. Some said their work is successful because the atmosphere in their buildings is noticeably calmer, others pointed to the fact their students never miss a mental health support group meeting — even though it’s voluntary. Still others said the difference is obvious in the connections they see every day. “There’s just a constant flow of students wanting to come say hi or what’s upsetting them, what’s making them happy,” said Kent, the social worker at Montview Elementary. 

“It can start as ‘I’m a little bit sad,’ but that could certainly change and get more severe and become more of a depression.” 

Jay Brown, A Sixth grade counselor

Aurora administrators said the pandemic’s impact on kids and families has given them even more to do — hire more staff, collect more data, train more teachers. Superintendent Munn said the pandemic disrupted a lot of the district’s plans and the mental health team is trying to get back on track. There are groups working to vet different social and emotional curricula, to infuse discussions about how to cope with feelings and trauma into academic classes, ensure the lesson plans are culturally responsive and create a community mental health advisory group. 

Lyle, the principal at Columbia Middle School, said when he started as a teacher in the district 20 years ago, mental health “wasn’t something you talked about.” If students were having trouble, they were either sent home or isolated in a room, he said. This year especially, it’s not an afterthought,” he said. “It’s the first thing we think about.” 

Lyle said the issues schools must deal with before and after Covid are essentially the same —anxiety, homelessness, grief, trauma — but the volume and intensity of students and families needing help has increased significantly. 

Counselors, like Jennifer Rice, say they feel grateful for the foundation that was already in place in the district. “So when Covid hit, it did not feel as heavy as it could have and as it probably did in other districts,” she said. 

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741

This story about trusted adults was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Kavitha Cardoza is an award-winning journalist covering education, children and poverty. Her stories have appeared on NPR, PBS NewsHour, WAMU Public Radio, Atlantic.com and The Washington Post among others....

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