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Partnership continues focus on student emotional, mental health

Chronic absenteeism symptom of broader issue, leaders say

All districts As more knowledge and resources become available, the Kent County School-Justice Partnership continues to prioritize the physical, emotional and mental health of students. 

Mandated by then-Gov. Rick Snyder in 2013, the Kent School-Justice Partnership works to keep children in school to combat the high-school dropout-to-prison pipeline.

As one of the key leaders, Kent County Circuit Court judge Kathleen Feeney believes the partnership’s approach to keeping students in school has become more actively trauma-informed in the last 10 years, resulting from more conversations about students’ lives outside of school. 

“All of these ideas of being more trauma-informed have been pushed to the forefront of our thinking, and we are reacting as quickly as we can,” Feeney said. “I’m tired of the old ‘students are not coming to school, so we’re going to kick them out’ approach.” 

Since its inception, the partnership’s member organizations and school districts have focused on reducing chronic absenteeism, defined by all Kent County Public School districts as students missing more than 10% of scheduled school time.

“Our focus hasn’t changed,” Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Kevin Polston said. “Absenteeism is still a symptom of a broader issue. Now, with students and parents at home, the committee has taken a bit of a different approach by supporting the community’s mental health to get the 10-15% of absent students back in class.”

Kent County Circuit Court judge Kathleen Feeney

Trauma’s Impact

The partnership has found that recent studies explain the impacts of childhood trauma on adults, affecting their ability to build relationships and learn.

In a virtual training session presented on Oct. 28 by the 17th District Court, Steven Capps, director of Michigan’s Friend of the Court Bureau, discussed adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. 

“ACEs are harmful experiences that occur in early childhood with a strong potential to create lasting negative impacts, such as disrupted development, engaging in high-risk behaviors and an early death,” Capps explained in his presentation. “The effects of ACEs in childhood are tardiness, unpredictable reactions and emotions, unmotivated nature, lack of productivity and a lack of trust in self and others.”

On a more hopeful note, Capps identified access to education as an opportunity to offset the damage caused by childhood trauma. 

Feeney said the partnership made Capps’ ACEs presentation available to Kent County teachers and staff members to bring people together and spark critical thinking, despite the pandemic limiting large conferences and workshops.

“Students can carry trauma from their first, second and third generations of family,” Feeney explained. “The earlier a student’s trauma can be identified and addressed, the better chance that student has at succeeding in school and in life.”

Within the judicial and education systems, both Capps and Feeney stressed the importance of practicing empathy, patience and respect to help improve outcomes when working with those who have trauma history. 

Said Feeney: “When I have young people in my courtroom, I always say to myself, ‘This kid made choices, but what led them to making those choices? What happened in the parent’s life?’ We need to start thinking back and expanding our view on generational trauma and ask ourselves, ‘how are we going to change their trajectory?’”

Kevin Polston

Community Efforts 

Entering the 2020-2021 school year, Kent County schools and members of the partnership saw an increased need for mental health support and resources for K-12 students, due to virtual learning and social isolation. 

“Leading up to this school year we conducted a screening and our data showed an increased concern for mental health in our community,” Polston said. “Learning in person has a tremendous positive impact on students’ well being. The virtual learning environment results in a growing feeling of isolation among students.”

In November 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an approximate 24% and 31% increase in mental health–related hospital visits for children ages 5–11 and 12–17, respectively, compared to 2019. 

As part of the partnership, Polston prioritizes students’ mental health and making sure schools can provide the support they need.

Godfrey-Lee utilizes Yale University’s social and emotional learning tool, RULER, an acronym for five skills: recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating. The program teaches emotional intelligence — the ability to be self-aware of emotions — to teachers, students and families in K-12 schools.

Polston also commented on the impacts of antiracism learning on students’ social and emotional well-being.

“If we want to look at a trauma-informed approach to education, you have to look at who is experiencing the trauma,” Polston said. “Social-emotional and racial learning have to go hand-in-hand and that requires strong leadership and action to create racism-free environments.” 

In-School Mental Health

Support and resources for students who experienced or are experiencing trauma can also be seen in the Kent County medical community. Organizations like Spectrum Health’s Healthier Communities initiative strive to positively influence the future of young people with traumatic backgrounds. 

According to Vice President Dr. Ken Fawcett, who oversees all health care services provided in schools, the initiative serves more than 85,000 students in Kent County, and focuses on improving the health of the community, increasing access to health care and inspiring hope.

“ACEs have a significant impact in determining a young person’s path in life toward being able to care for themselves and provide for their financial needs,” Fawcett said. “We don’t always have the ability to address the root cause, but we do have the ability to influence students in schools and provide services for their needs.”

Brandon Holmes, clinical manager of Behavioral Health at Spectrum,  recently partnered with Healthier Communities to work toward introducing mental health services in schools where physical health care is already provided. 

“Virtually within the school, we know we have a captive audience. As long as students are getting to school, we can give them the assistance they need,” Holmes said. 

Seeing an increased need for behavioral health services, Spectrum Health conducted a pilot program at Greenville High School, where students were connected virtually with a social worker from Lakeview High School.

Holmes said positive community feedback is prompting plans to expand to other schools such as select Kentwood, Cedar Springs, Comstock Park and Sparta schools by spring 2021.

“When I have young people in my courtroom, I always say to myself, ‘This kid made choices, but what led them to making those choices? What happened in the parent’s life?’ We need to start thinking back and expanding our view on generational trauma and ask ourselves, ‘how are we going to change their trajectory?’”

— Kathleen Feeney, Kent County District Court judge

By implementing mental health services in schools, the program hopes to identify and address ACEs, teach students healthy coping skills at earlier ages and set them up for success as adults. 

“That’s why we want to become engaged in the work of behavioral health because we can’t get comfortable in the status quo. We have to create change for the better,” Fawcett said.

Through the efforts of the Kent County School-Justice Partnership and other advocates for student’s mental health, Feeney encourages people to put their “trauma-informed hats on” and ask questions about where a child has been and where they are going.

“We’re not trying to create the Mona Lisa in a day,” Feeney said. “There is so much more progress that needs to be made. We’re just trying to make progress in pieces, and eventually the larger picture of the puzzle will become clear.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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