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Hall schools train on responses to mental illness, behavioral problems
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McEver Arts Academy Principal Matthew Alexander and counselor Ally Diesch participate in angry student role-playing scenarios Wednesday, June 13, 2018, at the Hall County Schools central office as part of part a mental health and crisis intervention training. Hall County Schools administrators, staff, faculty and school resource officers attended the event. - photo by Scott Rogers

Sgt. Jeff Fleming of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office isn’t coy when asked whether he’s on higher alert now for threats to student safety in local schools.

“You can’t be in a law enforcement job without saying, ‘What if?’” said Fleming, who has served as a resource officer at North Hall High School for the last 12 years.

The frequency of school shootings has made violence that once seemed distant feel closer than ever to home.

Fleming said students were a little “spooked” after the nation’s deadliest school shooting in five years occurred in Parkland, Fla., in February.

And that means extra training is a good thing.

“Just having a little bit of knowledge on how to deal with them is huge,” he said. “I believe for the most part the kids in these schools see us every day and they know that we are there for them and we are going to be there for them.”

Fleming, along with other Hall County Schools resource officers, teachers, staff and administrators participated Tuesday and Wednesday in an educational workshop hosted by the National Association of School Resource Officers, an Alabama-based nonprofit that advocates and teaches practices in school-based policing.

Working with the nonprofit National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, NASRO developed and released in February new curriculum focused on helping educators and law enforcement better understand, identify and respond to individuals with mental illness and behavioral problems.

Kerri Williamson, training director for NASRO, said her organization typically works directly with law enforcement agencies and that the county school district training sessions were a first.

Fleming said the training serves to reinforce old lessons and learn new ones, particularly when it comes to developing positive relationships with students.

“Sometimes you got kids that get upset easily,” he added, but tense interactions can be diffused with knowledge and bonding. “If you develop that relationship with them … where they see you as kind of a cool person … they might even actually just calm down and talk to you.”

For teachers like Caroline Gable, who educates special needs students at Flowery Branch Elementary, the NASRO training sessions provided new tools to intervene and prevent disruptive behavior in her classroom.

Gable said she was most interested in the crisis intervention and de-escalation training.

Though a worst-case scenario occurring at an elementary school is less likely than with older student groups, the killing of children as young as 6 years of age in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 makes it imaginable.

Still, the NASRO training was tailored to educators, too, so that they can learn how to better manage and work with vulnerable students who may have learning and behavioral disabilities.

“It’s good to know how to help them be there to learn instead of feeling overwhelmed,” Gable said.

Matthew Alexander, principal at McEver Arts Academy, said there has been a noticeable “uptick” in the number of students of elementary age who are struggling with anxiety and stress.

Unstable home lives are one culprit. And school can provide a place of structure and safety for students, Alexander said, where they can learn to cope before bigger problems arise.  

Superintendent Will Schofield said there are multiple components to addressing safety in local schools.

This includes facilities that are secured and monitored, resource officers stationed at each school and coordination with local emergency responders.

Hall County has already budgeted about $300,000 this year to add silent alarms and other security measures to all its schools.

And the state is pouring $16 million into school districts across Georgia to help improve safety for students on campus, including $215,000 for Hall County Schools.

Schofield said that addressing the mental health of students by ensuring resources are in place to serve those in crisis is also a critical part of securing safety in public schools.

He’d much rather spend this money on academics, Schofield said, but the times call for this response.

“The big piece that our country is going to have to have an adult conversation about is … mental illness,” he added. “That one is overwhelming.”

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Clinical therapist James Puckett leads a mental health and crisis intervention training for Hall County Schools administrators, staff, faculty and school resource officers Wednesday, June 13, 2018, at the Hall County Schools central office on Green Street in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers