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BOE Reviews Social Emotional Health, Supports



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School District Health Coordinator Anne Dalton visited the Board of Education June 27 to review the social emotional support the school district offers, and report on student mental health.

First, Dalton showed the list of programs, personnel, practices, and partners associated with social emotional health supports in Newtown Schools. There were at least three programs per school dedicated to social emotional health.

Dalton identified “expanded classes” currently incorporated in Newtown curriculum resulting from a collaboration with the Center for Empowerment and Education. The classes, which now span kindergarten through 12th grade, address topics such as kindness, “safe touch,” healthy relationships, boundaries, and consent in ways that were “developmentally appropriate” and “well-received.”

Tricia Dahl, research representative of Yale School of Medicine and students from Southern Connecticut State University were collaborators to educate Newtown students in special, individual class programs to educate about risks of vaping.

Dalton said the fact-based programs are proven to be more effective than school wide assemblies, and the game with the college students was “engaging” for younger students. She reported 88% of students surveyed after the game said they would be less likely to try or continue vaping.

“It’s a series of videos implanted into the lesson that illustrate for the children situations they might encounter and instructs them in how to respond,” said Dalton.

According to Dalton’s presentation, there are four personnel in the elementary schools related to social emotional health. This number increased through the age groups, with 21 personnel available to students attending Newtown High School.

Reed Intermediate School sustains the least amount of practices at three, and the other schools sustain at least five.

According to the report, Newtown Schools partners with 17 organizations for social emotional health support, 14 of which are located in Newtown.

Dalton gave an overview of the CASEL framework for social emotional framework, which she described as “evidence-supported” and is implemented from kindergarten through 12th grade in the district.

According to Dalton, CASEL focuses on developing self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making in all students.

In the graphic, the foundational skills are shown as supported first in the classroom with social-emotional curriculum and instruction, then with school wide practices and policies, and finally in family and community partnerships.

Dalton gave an example of the CASEL-minded curriculum, expanded through “experiential learning” in Project Adventure class for Reed students, and in the bimonthly program Project Empower embedded in ninth and tenth grade advisory strategy including “collaborative experiences” around leadership and teamwork.

During questions, Board Member John Vouros called the Project Adventure program “phenomenal,” and alluded that the program should be in the elementary schools as well.

Trends And Triumphs

While she said Newtown has a “great framework”, Dalton cited the February 2023 Center of Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Survey to identify “worrisome” national trends observed from 2011 to 2021. According to the report, poor mental health as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors are increasing for nearly all groups of youth particularly for young women and LGBTQ youth.

Experiences of violence, including sexual violence, are not declining and, in some cases, are actually increasing. Finally, substance use, while generally decreasing, is still “too high” and has become “much more dangerous” with the arrival of new drugs on the scene such as fentanyl.

The health coordinator showed data from a Newtown-administered youth risk survey on how district students are doing this year compared to 2019 and 2017. The survey, usually acquired around every two or three years, was postponed because of the pandemic until April of this year.

Overall, symptoms of poor mental health seemed to have experienced a spike in 2019, and declined again in 2023. However, Newtown students are just as nervous as in 2017.

Newtown students are significantly more “restless and fidgety” than in 2017 or 2019, reportedly feeling this way around 47% of the time. This was an area that experienced exponential growth through the years.

“It’s hard to draw direct meaning from these statistics, but I wondered if that was a reflection of pandemic restlessness,” said Dalton.

Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and anger are about even since 2019, but are still up nearly ten percent since 2017.

Finally, students are reportedly just as depressed as they were in 2019 — feeling this way around 12% of the time.

“While that is worrisome, it is much lower than the national trend,” said Dalton, citing that students feel depressed 40% of the time nationally.

For all three years surveyed, Newtown students reported feeling nervous around 40% of the time.

'Risky' Behaviors Analyzed

Behaviors identified as “risky” are in general, down or remained consistent with data from 2019, as Dalton presented. This trend excluded placing online bets and playing games for money which both experienced a slight increase. Dalton speculated part of this uptick could be attributed to the recent legalization of online sports betting in the state.

Slightly more students attacked or hurt another person, picked a fight, got in trouble with the police, and stole than in 2019. However, these numbers are still significantly lower than they were in 2017. Riding with a driver using drugs takes the cake for the steepest decline, down over ten percent since 2017.

Students talked on the phone and texted while driving less than in 2019, with no data from 2017 to compare it to. The number of students suspended were consistent all three years. Students rode with drivers who consumed drugs or alcohol in a downward trend since 2017 which Dalton attributed to a national decrease in substance use.

Additional data included in the survey demonstrated high work ethic and trust in parents and guardians, with responses in various assessments of these areas reaching 92% and above.

“It might explain, in part, why our numbers are better than the national numbers,” said Dalton on this positive data.

An area of interest was 95% of students reportedly do not vape, but 78% of the seventh through 12th graders surveyed believe 25 to 50% of students in their grades use a vaping product.

“It’s a little hard to know just how to interpret that,” said Dalton, adding Bethel had similar results and kids may be worried these numbers may be tracked.

“We do know incidents of vaping have skyrocketed across the country,” she said.

An area of concern for the board of education during questions was only 83% of students reported feeling safe at school. Chair Deborra Zukowski expressed concern about this number during questions, and expressed desire for the number to be in “the upper 90s,” and Dalton said speaking to a consultant may inform them about how the more concerning number could change.

Nearly all data reporting school incidents in Newtown showed a decline in all types since the previous year, with sexual harassment reduced closely to non-existence. Incidents of non-sexual harassment, physical aggression, theft appear to have increased since the previous year.

“That number [for incidents of physical aggression] is a little misleading, because when you pull it out, it’s really in the very youngest grades that you’re seeing a lot of that,” said Dalton, who added it may be a result of children who are new to socializing because of the pandemic.

“Inappropriate behavior” was the most reported incident by a wide margin, and while it sustained the largest decrease in reports since the previous year, the number of these reports still neared 300.

Integrated Programs

Dalton overviewed the SOS Signs of Suicide Program presented to students every two years since seventh grade which she said has been “very effective,” and includes a screening tool that can identify students at risk so counselors can meet with them the same day.

Additionally, only two parents opted out of the program this year, which Dalton notes as a reflection of increased trust in the program.

“The percentage of students who are seen for follow ups after the screening has gradually increased,” said Dalton, who added counselors believe this is a result of students becoming more comfortable with the program and outreach.

“Nurses often act as triage area for many problems outside of physical health, and they can often be the ones to help kids connect to… support people in our schools,” said Dalton.

Dalton said as a result of the free clinics, 574 were vaccinated during the year against the flu, and 1106 were vaccinated against COVID-19. She also reviewed the school-based health center at NMS, which provides medical and mental health services. She added behavioral health services will be offered through the summer for middle schoolers and rising seventh graders.

Dalton reviewed Teen Talk counselors for kids in crisis, to identify and assist “high-risk students,” collaborate with school staff, and provide crisis intervention referrals. The main reasons students approached Teen Talk counselors were anxiety, peer issues, family conflict, academic challenges, and suicidal ideation.

75% of those at NHS who sought help from the counselors were girls, with a 50% split at the middle school.

Dalton reviewed informal, drop-in services at the middle school and high school provided by a licensed clinical social worker Martha Shilstone at Newtown Youth and Family Services, whose “focus has always been substance abuse, sometimes the student’s substance abuse or sometimes family or friend concerns.”

She also reviewed CBITS briefly, a “well-established” program for students in fifth grade and above who would benefit from individual and group counseling which includes trauma-trained counselors.

Dalton also discussed Hope Squad, a peer run suicide prevention club at the high school which held its largest ever membership at thirty students this past school year. The students are trained to question students who may be up at risk despite the stigma of suicide as a topic, and help to refer them to resources. They also influence the school by posting positive messages on lockers and coordinating therapy dog visits during stressful times like exam weeks.

“There is reason for concern and attention to children’s social emotional health, but Newtown seems to be on a good path,” said Dalton, adding she thinks things the district is doing to foster connectedness promotes mental health and not just in the school system.

“We’re very fortunate in Newtown to be in a place where the entire community is geared toward this,” said Dalton, who recommended the district continue to collaborate with local organizations.

Board Response

Board Member Todd Higgins said the acts of aggression data point in the incident log jumped out at him and asked who would know what the takeaways are. Dalton said she was cautioned to interpret those numbers as there are “variations from school to school on how the data is entered,” but year to year valuable data could be collected and better interpreted.

Board Member Donald Ramsey expressed concern about the Teen Talk help-seekers being majority female on the high school level, asking if there was any “notion of causality” as to why the group has more difficulties.

Dalton said she did not address the worrisome trend of increased sexual violence and particularly forced sex, which is linked to levels of suicidal ideation in young women. She also said she also reviewed data about social media as “a great concern” and a likely cause of issues.

Ramsey said he wondered if a mechanism could be established to “ascertain causality in more tangible terms” so the board can become more focused in addressing disproportionate issues.

Dan Cruson speculated the difference in reporting may reflect the result of gender stereotyping, where male students may not seek help because it “shows weakness.”

Assistant Superintendent of Schools asked about the participation rate, and regarding the teen talk and asked if 75% of participants were girls or if 75% of sessions were with girls who were accessing more frequently. Dalton could not answer at the time, but said she would find out regarding both questions.

Later in the evening, the Board of Education unanimously approved applying for the Connecticut Primary Mental Health Grant.

To access contact information for the various programs, personnel, practices and partners involved in Newtown Schools, visit www.newtown.k12.ct.us/HealthandWellness and click “Social and Emotional Health Supports.”

Reporter Noelle Veillette can be reached at noelle@thebee.com.

Board of Education members Alison Plante, Todd Higgins, and Shannon Tomai listen to Health Coordinator Anne Dalton as she reviews the mental health data and support systems in Newtown schools. — Bee photo, Veillette
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