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Peer listeners, other mental health supports, key to school safety

Editor’s note: This is the final entry in a three-part series on the problem of gun violence in schools, providing an overview of the many measures public school districts in Kent County have taken to protect students, enhance their safety and build their trust. The first part can be read here, and the second part can be read here.

Multiple districts — What’s it like to be a student in the post-Columbine, post-Sandy Hook era, when the specter of an ever-growing list of school shootings hangs overhead, and active-shooter drills are simply a way of life?

Many students, like Rockford High School sophomore Molly Amshay, have simply never known anything else.

“I just feel like it’s been a part of me since I was in elementary school. We did lockdown drills in elementary school, kindergarten, preschool,” Molly said. “I don’t fear coming to school in any way.”

Her experience isn’t uncommon, and it’s shared by students throughout Kent County and beyond. Caroline Cannon, director of student services at East Grand Rapids Public Schools and former principal of Breton Downs Elementary, said she’s observed a similar attitude among students over the years.

“They know that we have to have tornado drills, we have to have fire drills and we have to have ‘code red’ drills,” Cannon said. “That’s just part of their school structure.”

At Comstock Park, Gina Boscarino, a group specialist for Wedgwood Christian Services working at Mill Creek Middle School, said the same.

“I think they’re used to it,” Boscarino said. “They have been doing these drills their whole lives, so it doesn’t seem to affect them quite as much.” 

But along with the lockdown drills and building security measures that have become the norm, districts are making efforts to add student supports that focus on mental health, communication and relationships.

Molly, at Rockford, is part of one of those programs: the Rockford High School Peer Listeners, which trains students to hear their peers’ mental health concerns. It’s one of many resources Kent County schools are using to prevent incidents before they happen.

As part of a series on gun violence in schools, School News Network spoke to Peer Listeners and counselors at Rockford, as well as representatives from other districts, about the role student mental health plays in school security overall.

‘Sometimes when kids walk into a counselor’s room, you just don’t feel like talking to an adult. Just having someone to talk to that’s your same age really benefits our school.’

— Rockford High School sophomore Molly Amshay

‘It’s a Balance’

There’s a calculus to making sure security is top of mind without adding undue stress to students’ lives, and it’s a juggling act for each district.

“It’s a balance,” Cannon said. “We emphasize that it’s just a drill and that (a school shooting) is highly unlikely, but we do our best to reduce their anxiety.”

As important as the safety drills are, experts have underscored the importance of communication and relationship-building in the effort to curb school violence, and districts are working to maintain and improve personal connections. At East Grand Rapids, for example, Cannon said the district uses age-appropriate discussions to reassure students who are unnerved by emergency training and simulations.

“Do we have students that are concerned and have questions? Yes,” she said. “But the answers are going to change from elementary to middle to high school as well.”

Boscarino admitted the extra-vigilant environment of modern schools can be stressful, even if students are hardened to it.

“I would say that that has an impact on kids’ mental health, especially when we hear about a big shooting or something like that,” she said. “Kids are definitely subdued and nervous afterwards. … I think it definitely increases the anxiety that kids have.”

Gina Boscarino, Comstock Park Project Success counselor and Wedgwood group specialist, leads middle school students through a prevention activity on unhealthy activities such as vaping and drug use

The Peer Listeners are part of Rockford’s toolkit for addressing anxiety or worry. In addition to the district’s robust security and counseling team, Peer Listeners give students a safe, confidential space to talk about struggles large and small.

Their presence adds to Rockford’s wealth of student protections, said Scott Beckman, director of security.

“I consider them an integral part of the safety and security of our secondary buildings they are in,” Beckman said.

Since the inception of the RHS Peer Listeners in 2015, the group has grown consistently, from 13 students in its first year to 42 in 2023-24. Sarah Young, the counselor who leads the group, said it’s been successful mostly due to the advocacy of students.

Sarah Young, Rockford High School counselor (courtesy)

“It empowers students to take care of each other,” she said, “and it also gives them reassurance that the adults believe that they can handle difficult things.”

Peer Listeners also encourage high-schoolers to broach tough subjects on their own terms.

“Sometimes when kids walk into a counselor’s room, you just don’t feel like talking to an adult,” Molly said. “Just having someone to talk to that’s your same age really benefits our school.”

Peer Listeners are trained each year in how to lend an ear without intervening. Training includes primers on issues including ideations of self-harm and harming others; if those topics came up, the Peer Listeners would have to let a counselor know right away.

Molly and fellow Peer Listeners junior Annabelle Vitkauskas and sophomore Anna Tenbrink haven’t had to take such a concern to a counselor, but if they did, they’d be confident in the level of support their program provides.

“I think for any person in this school, it’s like an extra layer of security,”  Anna said. “I think that walking into your school every morning and knowing that there’s 42 kids and a lot of counselors that you have the option to talk to — I think that’s a super comforting feeling. Like, ‘If this goes wrong, it’s OK. I have people.’”

‘It’s a balance. We emphasize that it’s just a drill and that it’s highly unlikely, but we do our best to reduce their anxiety.’

— Caroline Cannon, East Grand Rapids director of student services 

Sharing Concerns

With respect to the toll the modern-day school security environment might take on students, the issue is perhaps more complicated than Molly initially lets on.

Though she is confident about safety at her school — and though she said the heavy focus on preventing violence “feels normal” — she admitted: “I’m still kind of fearful that it might happen at some point.”

“Every once in a while when we do the drills it sets into me (that) this could happen,” she said. “I could have to fight for my life in a classroom.”

Annabelle and Anna have had similar thoughts. Annabelle said she worries about the fact that most high-school shootings are perpetrated by students. She fears that would-be assailants among the student body might study safety drills to learn how to most efficiently stage an attack.

“The thing that scares me is … they know our drills, they know our plans,” she said. “So if they were to be the shooter, they would know what we’re doing — our plans and strategies to protect ourselves.”

Beckman, Rockford’s security director, said Annabelle’s concern is a common one, but the trainings are essential.

“We need to conduct the drills so that we react appropriately if the incident occurs,” Beckman said. “Sadly, in some instances we (could conceivably) train and conduct drills with a potential perpetrator.”

Beckman said often there are early warning signs, such as online behavior, that can come before an incident of violence, so students should report any concerning behavior they see.

“Our students can come up with great questions when they are present at the table. It provides us the opportunity to support their thoughts, or provide guidance through a different lens,” he said.

Many Services Available

Rockford has other resources as well, said Larinda Fase, director of special programs. The district works closely with Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, Forest View Hospital and Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital’s psychiatric unit on student mental health concerns.

“We have a comprehensive system in place,” Fase said. “If we feel a child is in danger (to themselves or others), it starts with our certified school counselors and licensed social workers. They work with the student and family and then pull in appropriate district staff.” 

Rockford, East Grand Rapids and other districts have invested heavily in  mental health programming. In addition to having mental health professionals at every building, districts are broadening offerings in the realm of social-emotional learning, which aims to boost self-awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision making and more through school curriculum.

Over the last year or so, Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students lessons were implemented in grades 6-8 at both Rockford and EGR.

“TRAILS is a comprehensive resource for SEL, and it really focuses on early intervention and crisis intervention,” Cannon said. “It utilizes the cognitive behavior therapy model, and it helps students make caring, responsible decisions.”

EGR High School started up its Zen Den, where students can walk in, have a snack and “know that there’s a mental health professional there that they can have a conversation with,” she said.

Cannon also noted the district’s Gatekeeper program, which gives all staff training in behavioral threat assessments, as well as its community mental health nights, among other resources in the district’s ever-changing mental health roster.

At Caledonia, there’s an informal structure for monitoring student behavior for signs that an intervention might be needed, and everyone takes part.

“Teachers help us keep an eye on students, and let me know when they’re not in class and when I need to be worried,” said Andrea Hilaski, high school counselor. “That’s why we need everyone in the school to be a community; I can only see so many students a day. It’s important for teaching staff or lunch staff to tell me if students aren’t being themselves.”

Collaboration is key, she said. 

“If everyone is working in isolation, how can we best help?” Hilaski asked. “We let teachers know if students need a little love. You hope that the quiet ones who don’t come in on their own have the tools for themselves and others, and if it’s something bigger, to reach out to us.”

The district is getting creative with its stress-relieving tools; Hilaski said she happily employs a small punching bag for students to use if they need to vent.

“If they need a space, they know they can come in and fall apart and I’m not going to judge them,” she said.

Junior Annabelle Vitkauskas, right, talks with sophomore Anna Tenbrin, center, and sophomore Molly Amshay at Rockford High School

Reducing the Stigma

Districts have placed an emphasis on peer-to-peer programs in an effort to let students know that it’s OK to struggle, and students are getting more involved at districts like Lowell, Thornapple Kellogg and Kent ISD.

Young said there’s been a “wave” of increased openness with respect to mental-health issues, and she believes Peer Listeners help normalize speaking about such matters.

“I think that’s kind of the purpose of Peer Listening,” Young said. “We are trying to reduce the stigma of mental health by making it something everybody can talk about.”

At Comstock Park, Boscarino noted that she’s seen a similar shift in attitudes toward mental health.

“It’s wonderful that schools are open to and wanting to address these topics, making mental health less stigmatized for kids to be able to explore this stuff,” she said. “In student mental health, one of the things that I’ve noticed is, kids are becoming a lot more open about it and mental health has kind of become a very popular subject.”

Rockford’s Peer Listeners, said Young, help to keep the dial moving forward in that regard.

“I think Peer Listening helps kids realize that you can talk to other kids about it,” she said. “We want you to talk about it. We want you to reach out for help. We want you to find someone in your life that will listen to you and help you. So speak up, right?”

Reporters Alexis Stark and Joanne Bailey-Boorsma contributed to this story.

Read more: 
At BizTown, a mini city provides life-sized learning
‘This is when my life starts getting better’: EGR senior pushes through painful loss

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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