News 8 Investigates: Securing Our Schools: How one district is addressing mental health

Nearly $100 million in state funding is being used to improve security in Wisconsin schools. As part of this statewide initiative to stop violence in our schools, lawmakers have also focused on addressing mental health.

Following the Parkland, Florida, school shooting which left 17 dead and many other wounded, Wisconsin legislators approved $100 million in funding for school security. If a district received some of that grant money, school officials were required to undergo mental health training and make physical security improvements to school buildings. But the second round of grant funds was meant to advance prior training and additional building security.

According to the Department of Justice, $48,483,015 was distributed to 723 schools and school districts during the first round of school safety grants. Once the second round of school funding was completed, the 588 schools and school districts were awarded more than $45 million in total, according to a Wisconsin DOJ press release. Another $6 million was intended to be used for other grant applications, an emergency response fund and other related school safety expenses.

One area school district is using that state funding to not only secure its schools but create a safer community.

While the teacher is leading a class at Tomah’s Miller Elementary School, Nicole Milliren is watching. There’s one child in the classroom that needs extra attention.

“Things we’ve tried are not working. They still tend to be frustrated or act out and have possibly difficulties making friendships or connections. Either with classmates or their teachers,” said Diana Lesneski, principal at Miller Elementary.

Milliren is a therapist specialized in addressing trauma. She’s looking at how teachers are interacting with these kids.

“Behaviors of kids are messages. If we can understand what the message is that the kids are trying to tell us, we will spend less time on behavioral issues, because we will have less behavioral issues,” said Milliren, a consultant working with the district.

The Tomah Area School District received a total of $393,518 in school safety grant funding. Superintendent Cindy Zahrte said most of the money has been used to improve the physical security of district buildings, but other funding is being devoted to addressing mental and behavioral health issues.

“It’s not enough to just secure our buildings. We have to ensure that we are helping our students be able to be resilient and responding to difficulties that they’re having,” Zahrte said.

The school district hired Milliren using a combination of school district, federal grant and state grant funding through the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Office of School Safety. Milliren has provided training for its entire staff in addition to one-on-one coaching.

“We know that in order for kids to be successful academically, they need to have their emotional needs met and so we’re looking at how to best address kids and interact with them,” Lesneski said.

Milliren has been using a tool called Circle of Security. It’s a relationship model to identify when kids are seeking support from adults, like teachers, and how these adults can address their needs.

“Kids with challenging behaviors– typical consequences don’t work. And they don’t work long term,” Milliren said.

The district has been learning about Adverse Childhood Experiences as a way to understand how trauma affects children into adulthood. But Circle of Security explains how that turns into behaviors.

“Some of their relationship patterns worked to keep them safe, to keep them alive, to keep them sane,” Milliren said.

Those behaviors may have made sense in abusive environments or in a household where drugs were used, but not a classroom.

“You might have some students that are really quiet, really reserved, they don’t let people in, they shut people out. Sometimes those kids can’t hold that lid too long. So they explode,” Milliren said.

The mental health organization ‘National Alliance on Mental Illness‘ reports 10 percent of youth have a behavior or conduct disorder. While 20 percent of children ages 13 through 18 have or will have a serious mental illness. Zahrte believes addressing the mental health of students will help prevent school violence.

“We can’t build our walls high enough to keep our kids safe. If someone is really intent on doing harm, they will figure out a way to do that. So the better approach is trying to figure out how do we help individuals so they don’t have a desire to do harm,” Zahrte said.

Milliren’s training will continue on a monthly basis for the rest of the school year in addition to the one on one coaching. The Tomah Area School District plans on educating new staff and teachers over time in the methods.

The superintendent said they are looking at increasing the amount of school-based therapists to work with students. And the district has invited the medical community around the area to share ideas about the issues.

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