Making schools safer, focusing on mental health

Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction is putting new ideas forward to make our schools safer.

The recommendations focus on four key categories: climate and culture, physical environment, policies and procedures, and the state’s No. 1 priority, mental health.

The Department of Public Instruction estimates one in five children is dealing with mental health issues in Wisconsin and 80 percent of those students don’t get the help they need. Which is why addressing mental health issues is the top priority for the state.

La Crosse School District leaders feel they’re ahead of the game on this topic and agree that addressing this issue is vital to making school a safer place.

Alicia Place has been a social worker in the La Crosse School District for nine years. In that time, she’s seen mental health issues become diagnosed in children earlier and earlier.

“In the last few years, I hear more about anxiety in kids and I think that’s for a lot of reasons: pressures of different things and societal pressures, home life. ADHD is always a big one,” Place said.

Place said diagnosing young kids with mental health issues can be tricky.

“We always have to question is it really a mental health issue or is it a child’s reaction to home environment or things that they’re experiencing outside of school,” Place said.

Place said she’s glad to see the state addressing mental health needs because it does make school safer for those kids.

“Just being in a classroom with other students they’re feeling more comfortable, they feel like school is a safe place to be, they’re feeling more under control,” Place said.

Parents feel the same way.

“The school is the first line sometimes in identifying those types of problems. Sometimes the parents aren’t capable of identifying certain issues and behaviors, so yes I think it’s a good idea,” Jeff Hendricks, a parent, said.

The La Crosse School District is already working hard to address mental health needs. It has developed partnerships with many organizations in the community over the past few years.

“We have mental health liaisons from around the county who are assigned to some of our school buildings, whom principals or social workers or counselors are able to call on when they have mental health concerns,” Regina Siegel, director of pupil services and learning supports for the La Crosse School District, said.

Place appreciates having that extra support and hopes that now other school districts will be able to offer kids the help they need.

“I think diagnosing mental health at an early age makes the outcome for treatment better,” Place said.

The La Crosse School District has 25 counselors and social workers on staff, but Place mentioned there is a shortage of child therapists and child psychologists in Wisconsin and across the country.

The La Crosse School District said on the most recent report it’s ahead of the standards in all four categories, but will still look to make improvements.