By Derek Tyson, The Welch News Editor
WELCH, WV – The focus of Monday’s Board of Education meeting was on meeting the social, emotional and mental needs of the students, and sometimes their families, in McDowell County.
Perry Blankenship, 2018 WV School Counselor Association’s Advocate of the Year, gave a presentation to the Board highlighting the tiered intervention model that is available to students.
“In the school system, we are addressing social, emotional and mental health needs of all of our students in a variety of ways,” said Blankenship. “All of this leads to the ability to reduce bullying or reduce students having issues, and helping them overcome them and have resiliency. One of the programs that we’re really focusing on is the Olweus program.”
The core of the Olweus program is the creation of bullying prevention teams in each school across the County.
“Our staff members get trained to address and identify bullying, but ot only does it address the bully, it addresses the bystanders and everyone involved,” said Blankenship. “Sometimes those are the pieces that go untouched in a lot of the curriculum I’ve looked at.”
According to Blankenship, the Olweus program is an evidence-based curriculum that has been proven to work not only in the United States, but in other nations across the world.
“It’s been used for quite a few years and has been very, very effective. It teaches them how to talk with the bystanders, the bully and the person being bullied,” said Blankenship. “The program teaches them not only the students but the parents, that things are being addressed and being taken care of at our school.”
One way of addressing bullying and its vicious side effects is offering mental health services in every school.
“We have face-to-face services in some schools, but there’s also our new Telehealth Therapy program,” said Blankenship. “Every school has a computer so the students can speak with a therapist over the internet and get that service at school.”
An internet-based therapy service offers the benefit of still being available during the long summer break and during other holidays throughout the year. Before, counselors would have to make home visits that were met with resistance, according to Blankenship.
“People are uncomfortable with home visits, but what happens with Telehealth therapy is they don’t enter the home,” said Blankenship. “It works with their iPhones, smartphones, or computers so that student can get consistent service, even throughout summer or any of the holidays.”
Expanding the amount of service providers available has also opened new avenues for tackling the social, emotional and mental needs of the students.
“We’re working with Southern Highlands, Harmony, KVC, Crittenton, and Family Options so we have quite a few options for families to choose from,” said Blankenship. “We don’t want families to feel like we’re forcing them to use one service provider, they have the ability to chose from several.”
Aside from expanded services, the new mental health providers also open accessibility beyond students with Medicaid insurance. The new providers can accept any type of insurance, private pay, private insurance, Medicaid, Medicare.
“One of the providers, Harmony, also offers family therapy as well,” said Blankenship. “They can work with the parents, with the students, with any family ember, so that’s another branch of service that’s been added. All of their therapists are trauma-focused therapists so they can deal with any type of trauma that may be going on in that student’s life or in the life of that family itself.”
Taking care of the child’s family is integral for successful student help, according to Blankenship.
“If we help the students but ignore the parents, not strengthening their mental health as well, they will still have that vicious cycle of going home and that learned behavior,” said Blankenship.
Connections with community providers are another angle of approach for McDowell County Schools.
“We have a lot of problems with transportation, but what I’ve been told is if a parent needs transportation to school or to a point, if they’re disabled or a senior, they can call the Commission on Aging for transportation to the appointment,” said Blankenship.
Services provided to McDowell County Schools students are broken into three tiers: Tier 1 being universal services available to all students, targeted services for at risk students (usually 15%) are Tier 2, with Tier 3 being intensive, individual therapy for high risk students.
“One of the things we hope by implementing stronger Tier 1 and 2 services, is that we’re reducing the need for Tier 3,” said Blankenship. “I think we’re being very effective and are now able to meet a lot of needs, but it’s going to take awhile to see some of this fall into place where we see big turnovers and big changes.”
Blankenship was hopeful for changes in the future, particularly resulting from the Early Childhood Positive Behavior & Supports program, now starting with Pre-K students.
“I think if we can help them take care of their social and emotional needs that young, by the time they get to high school they can focus more on the curriculum instead of mental health,” said Blankenship.
Afterwards, Blankenship took questions from the Board.
“Do we provide services if they don’t have a computer,” asked Board President David Williams.
“They come to the schools now for the services,” said Blankenship. “We have not been able to provide something to take home but most of the students have a smart phone that lets them use the service. We’ve not really seen a barrier to access.”
Board member Mike Mitchem said one of the biggest complaints he hears in the community is bullying on the school bus and asked what the best way for parents to inform the school.
“They just report it to the principal and school counselors,” said Blankenship. “There’s a piece for our bus drivers in the new training as well.”
“Does it include workshops for teachers,” asked Mike Vallo.
“Yes, we’re addressing everyone. At first (the Olweus Program) builds that core team and then it’s their responsibility to train the teachers. I help facilitate that as well,” said Blankenship.
“The principals are included in that as well right,” asked Vallo.
“Yes we try to make sure the principal is always a member of the team,” said Blankenship.
“Because if they’re not going to do anything about it, then it’s not going to help anything with these kids,” said Vallo.
“That’s right. One of the things we’re doing is not having a bunch of different teams. The team for Olweus is also my PBIS team. It’s not making extra work, I’m helping blend the programs into one cohesive program instead,” said Blankenship.
“It’s been the focus of a little bit of frustration, what do we do when we receive reports of a bullying victim, but the bully denies it. Students are notorious for not telling on the other, what do we do when you can’t prove either one,” asked Callaway.
“We still have all the supports we can give to that student, making sure we’re connecting with that student and making sure they have mentors so they are not left alone,” said Blankenship. “Even if a student says they’re not doing it, our staff can watch those students to make sure there are no opportunities for that to continue.”
“I know it’s important for the teachers to be very engaged, because it starts out with people making fun of somebody and then it moves on to a higher level,” said Vallo. “Some teachers don’t want to jump in there and have a discussion with them.”
“That’s what this new program is all about, identifying the problem early on instead of writing it off as horseplay,” said Blankenship.
“I think the basis of this whole thing is the Positive Behavior Intervention & Supports program, starting with Pre-K,” said Falin. “Then we start teaching positive behaviors, teaching expectations, and having interventions for those that are struggling, maybe it won’t get to that point.”
“A lot of what we’re seeing is students don’t know how to address a problem they’re having,” said Blankenship. “What they see at home is not what they need to be modeling at school.”
“You do see problems in Pre-K,” said Margaret Beavers. “When I worked there, there were definitely problems. Starting early can maybe prevent it later on.”
“Being a tiered intervention model, not all kids need the same thing,” said Falin. “If one’s thing is anger, we work with their anger. If it’s substance abuse, we work with them on that. It differentiates by what they need.”
Perry Blankenship was also recognized for being the Advocate of the Year by the WV by the Board of Education and Superintendent Falin, honoring him with applause.