Blount County Schools administrators say they are seeing students with emotional and mental illnesses on a scale they’ve never seen before, particularly in the lower grades.
At one of the district’s 14 elementary schools:
• Three students are on suicide watch, and a kindergartner says daily that he wants to kill himself and his teacher.
• Five students are cutting themselves and sharing videos with other children.
• One anxious student pulls his hair out, and another student goes to the restroom after lunch every day to throw up the food.
• Two students say voices are telling them to do things to themselves or others.
Across the schools, staff members are assaulted, from students who bite and scratch to punching a principal in the head and breaking bones.
In the elementary schools alone so far this school year, an entire class has been disrupted more than 260 times because of a student’s behavior.
During the 2018 calendar year, 46 students were transported from a BCS middle or high school to a hospital because of suicidal ideation — an average of more than one a week when school is in session.
Last week a middle school student in a neighboring county died by suicide.
Because of the increases administrators have seen in students with mental illnesses and displaying disruptive classroom behavior in recent years — and anticipating that will grow as more children born to parents addicted to opioids start school — BCS formed a Mental Health Committee to research and develop strategies to implement over the next several years.
Blount County Schools aren’t alone.
According to a white paper prepared by the Tennessee Association of School Psychologists, one in five young people show signs of a mental illness, and one in four Tennesseans reports having three or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which can affect brain development and behavior.
In the past decade, the state has seen a nearly 10-fold increase in the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome — suffering withdrawal after being exposed to substances such as opioids in the womb.
“We really do not know at this point in time what the presenting behaviors are going to be for these kids long term,” Mary Beth Blevins, BCS Coordinated School Health coordinator, told principals meeting with the committee last week.
What schools are seeing today is like a 10-foot wave, Director Rob Britt told the principals. “The 40- and 50-foot waves are coming.”
“Our general-ed teachers and special-ed teachers need to be able to teach, so we need more mental health folks on-site and on staff that can deal with those unique needs that take away learning time in the classroom every single day,” said Amanda Vance, BCS special education supervisor.
In 2018, 276 Blount County students received school-based behavioral health services through Cherokee Health Systems, and most were diagnosed with two disorders. Twenty-seven were diagnosed with four.
The diagnoses include things such as anxiety, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse or neglect, and substance abuse or dependence.
National statistics show most youths with major depression don’t receive mental health services, and Tennessee is among the worst for not providing those services.
In the past year, Maryville City Schools and Alcoa City Schools have added support for staff members to deal with student behaviors and the effects of ACEs.
Last week’s BCS meeting was to gather principals’ feedback on recommendations the Mental Health Committee has been developing.
The committee will present the revised recommendations in a multiyear plan to the Blount County Board of Education after tonight’s regular meeting, which starts at 5 p.m. at the Central Office.
The recommendations include:
• Adding a curriculum for teaching students social and emotional skills.
• Expanding schools’ use of the Response to Instruction and Intervention for Behavior (RTI2-B) program, which reinforces positive behavior.
• Adding 2½ school psychologists, four school counselors and three clerical staff members to support mental health services.
The current ratio of counselors to students in BCS is about 1:1,500. That’s three times the recommendation of the National Association of School Counselors.
Jared Smith, principal at Porter Elementary School, talked about the impact of having a counselor on-site only three days a week, and being responsible for teaching classes, too.
“Without fail on Thursday and Friday, there’s always a kid that needs immediate attention with something ... and I’m in there doing the best I can,” Smith said.
In addition to not having a counselor every day, nine of the elementary schools don’t have an assistant principal, and two share a part-time assistant principal.
Even if the recommendations are fully implemented, each school counselor still would be split among two or three elementary schools.
Another recommendation is creating transition programs at all levels. For example, a kindergarten transition program would help students who don’t come to school with social, emotional and behavioral skills, since today kindergarten mostly is focused on academic skills.
New transition programs at the Samuel Everett School of Innovation, which houses the BCS alternative school programs, would serve students returning to school from residential treatment facilities.
Principals also have requested an alternative program for grades four and five at SESI, with a teacher and assistant.
“If we don’t address these needs, there’s going to be a lot of negative outcomes,” Vance said, including attendance, academic, peer conflict, substance abuse and crime problems. “This is going to have a lifelong impact on kids.”