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Why Hall County is tackling student mental health issues
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Left, Cheryl Jones, Hall director of school nutrition, and Mark Pettitt, Hall County school board member, look at posters full of comments from students who struggle with mental health issues. - photo by Kelsey Podo

Band Aids can only go so far when children are struggling with mental health issues. 

Faced with this fact, Hall County Schools decided it was time to become more aggressive with addressing mental health needs across the district.

Step one started with listening to students.

“A kid who’s in their seventh house in the last three months and has a step dad that’s beating them and a mother who’s addicted, just doesn’t care much about advanced algebra,” Hall Superintendent Will Schofield said during a board meeting on Nov. 18. “It’s not that they don’t want to learn advanced algebra, it’s not even on their radar screen. We came to the conclusion. I said, ‘Kevin, we’re going to do this.’”

Like most of the district’s programs, they’re starting small.

Lanier College & Career Academy was chosen as the pilot location of Hall’s Mental Health Initiative. 

Joy Schofield, LCCA’s student services liaison, said the school was chosen because its students represent the faces of every single kid in Hall.

Kevin Bales, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, Jeff Jenkins, LCCA principal, and Tamara Etterling, director of student services, teamed up with Joy Schofield to plan the initiative. 

The program has three tiers. Tier one is the broadest scope, which aims to equip adults with mental health-specific knowledge, so they can properly support students. 

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Left, Bill Thompson and Sam Chapman, Hall County school board members, read some of the answers Lanier College & Career Academy students wrote during their conversations about mental health, during a recent school board meeting. - photo by Kelsey Podo

This includes giving teachers training to catch the signs and symptoms of mental health issues and learn how to be sensitive to kids in crisis. Tier one also entails conducting surveys on a school level to hear the voices of the students. 

Joy Schofield said the school has already implemented its first survey through conversation circles.

The student groups represented a broad sampling of LCCA, putting kids of similar backgrounds into the same circles. 

Over the course of two days in October, 100 students’ voices were heard. 

“There are kids having issues with depression, different types of abuse, anxiety, divorce, sexualtiy issues, relationship drama — so many issues,” Joy Schofield said. “It’s just overwhelming to see the sheer number of issues our kids are facing everyday and see it all in one place.”

Joy Schofield shared some of the answers anonymously submitted in the conversation circles with the Hall County Board of Education on Nov. 18. 

She invited each member to read off of sticky notes what each student wrote. 

The students were asked to fill in the blank, “If my teacher really knew me, they would know…”

“How much potential I have if someone just gave me the chance,” one of the anonymous notes read. “I could help guide others in the right direction and also myself, but it’s hard when you lack hope.”

Another said, “If my teachers really knew me, they’d know that I’ve been verbally abused all my life and treating me unfairly makes me feel like I can’t do anything.”

Joy Schofield compares these problems to being watched by a sniper.

“If you knew there was a sniper outside your front door this morning, would you care about your talk at lunch that you had to do?” she said. “No, you’d be taking care of what’s going on. That’s what our kids are facing … To come to school and ask them why they can’t do triple integrals, it’s just not real high on their priorities.”

Etterling said last year Hall sent out a Georgia health survey to elementary and middle schools. 

The results showed that one in five students have mental health issues. 

The piece of data that resonated with her the most, included the fact that 5.68% of students in Georgia said they wanted to hurt themselves.

“That’s 39,000 students in Georgia and SunTrust Park holds 41,000,” she said before the school board. “ … White Sulphur Elementary had six students who said in the past 30 days they wanted to hurt themselves. It’s one thing to think about SunTrust Park, but it’s another thing to think about it in your own school house.”

Another survey was handed out to LCCA students on Nov. 21 and Nov. 22, which will provide mental health statistics at a school level. 

Joy Schofield said once the data is compiled, it will help Hall staff and faculty know the sort of practices they should put in place. From there, they will be able to start the second tier of the initiative. 

Tier two involves creating support groups for students who are exposed to socio-emotional issues that hinder their learning experience. 

The kids who fit into tier two need more assistance than those in tier one. Joy Schofield said although plans aren’t in place yet, she intends to coordinate with groups like Laurelwood who can offer additional mental health services. 

Tier three entails giving one-on-one support to students who pose a threat to themselves or others. 

This tier wouldn’t use the LCCA counselors or social workers, but external partners like Avita or Laurelwood. 

For now, Joy Schofield said the school is tackling the matter one step at a time. 

“It’s very exciting to get a handle on this,” she said.