City schools bring in family therapist

By Jeff Linville -
Dr. Brown -

Mount Airy City Schools is giving its students and teachers access to a licensed therapist.

The city Board of Education gave its approval this week to an agreement with Daymark Recovery Services to have a therapist set up on school ground for ease of access.

Shari Payne is a licensed family therapist and also a licensed clinical addiction specialist who will be assisting the school system.

Emily McPeak, a licensed clinical social worker for Daymark, told the school board this week that Payne is also finishing up another certification that is considered the gold standard in child trauma care.

McPeak reminded the board that the school district set up an emergency-based contract last year with Daymark so that a mental health professional could be called in if a need arose.

This goes much further, but at minimal cost to the district.

School board member Kate Appler, who is also district administrator of the area Guardian ad Litem Division, said she is pleased that the school system is adding a service that can help children in need of mental health care.

Dr. Philip Brown, executive director of teaching and learning, said understanding how this agreement with Daymark works means understanding some of the background from the past year.

Mount Airy City Schools has started a Social and Emotional Learning Task Force, Brown said, and is part of a mental health round table with other school systems in the region to see what they are doing for kids.

“This is the most rewarding thing I’ve been involved in this year, hands down,” said Brown.

SEL task force

The SEL Task Force is made up of school counselors, administrators and teachers, parents, a retired mental health professional, a current mental health professional (McPeak), nurses, a pyschologist, one board member (Appler) and one student representative.

The task force established a few goals for itself, he said.

One goal is to provide access to social and emotional professionals for both kids and teachers, too. Teachers spend a lot of time with the children, so they can sense when a child has a need, he said. This gives that teacher a person to talk to about that situation.

Another goal is raising awareness on social and emotional health. Teachers, administrators and other school employees need to recognize bullying behaviors, suicidal tendencies, or emotional disturbances.

Hand in hand with that is a development for regular teachers in their capacity to understand, identify and respond to social and emotional issues. Educators have received training in what the school district is calling Mental Health First Aid. Who can the teacher talk to about situations? What can the teacher do in the classroom to offset these students’ conditions? How can they make the environment more conducive for learning?

These issues aren’t something that is well covered in traditional education classes in college, said Brown. Being nurturing and knowing how to handle difficult situations comes naturally to some folks, but not everyone.

Another goal is to develop procedures, protocols, policies and programs regarding social and emotional learning. This includes writing school policy that is included in a student handbook for things like bullying, harassment, digital citizenship, healthful living and mentoring.

Digital footprint and presence includes helping kids understand the good and bad elements of being online, said Brown. The young kids need to know not to put any personal information out there that could draw the attention of a child predator. The older kids need to understand how to communicate effectively with people and not engage in cyberbullying.

They need to understand the long-term consequences, he added. They might apply for a job one day and get turned down because the potential employer saw something unsavory on the applicant’s social media pages.

There are other parts that get into things like sexting and mature relationships, risky online relationships, internet privacy and knowing copyright laws (before they get in trouble for copying off the internet), he said.

The next step

Now the teachers have some training in spotting emotional distress and have some tools for helping alleviate stress. What happens when that isn’t enough? What happens next?

Brown said he was approached by an agency from Iredell County about providing mental health services. He took the offer to McPeak and asked if something similar could be done locally by Daymark.

In this new arrangement, a teacher can refer a student to a counselor. The counselor can speak to the child and see if a referral to Daymark is warranted.

Brown told the school board that 61.3 percent of students are eligible for Medicaid, the second-highest rate in this region. The fee for visiting the therapist is paid by Medicaid, so there is no cost to the student or the school.

The only liability to the district is providing a space out of which the therapist can work, he explained.

What about the other 38.7 percent of students? Brown believed the $50 service fee should come from the district. There are families that aren’t low enough on the income scale to qualify for Medicaid and yet don’t make enough to afford health insurance premiums. He said about 9 percent of students are uninsured and likely wouldn’t follow through on a referral if there were a cost involved.

The agreement approved by the school board will have the initial evaluation and up to four sessions covered by the school district. Then the student can be reevaluated to see if further treatment is necessary.

“A lot of times four visits can get to the heart of an issue and decide whether someone needs more or can be weaned off the service,” Brown said.

Before giving his consent, board member Mike Marion asked if the parents would be notified about the referrals.

Brown said Daymark will contact the parents for consent to treat.

The school board then approved the agreement.

Dr. Brown Brown

By Jeff Linville

Reach Jeff at 415-4692.

Reach Jeff at 415-4692.