Too many of our children are in serious emotional trouble, with anxiety reaching near-epidemic levels. Studies show that as many as one in eight children, and 25% of teens, are contending with diagnosable anxiety disorders. Left unattended, these issues can lead to children harming themselves — or others. Suicide rates are increasing fastest among children from the ages of 10 to 17 in New Jersey and across the nation.

During the last three years, officials confirmed 12 suicides of teenagers who were residents of, or students attending, schools in Mercer County, according to David Aderhold, superintendent of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional Schools.

In Essex County, Bloomfield public school officials report that two students completed and two attempted suicides in the last five years. In Cape May County, Ocean City superintendent Dr. Kathleen Taylor said two students died by suicide in the last five years, and a third recent graduate died from an overdose.

Why is this happening? What can concerned school board members do to protect the students they serve?
To search for answers, then-NJSBA President Dan Sinclair and Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod created the Task Force on Mental Health Services in the Public Schools in October 2018. The task force was comprised of local school board members, superintendents and mental health experts, and their report, “Building a Foundation for Hope,” contains 71 recommendations and strategies to help board members and school districts reach students and communities. Online, the report is here:

“The effort you make to understand the emotional needs of the children in your district can save lives. Communities that come together to solve problems before they occur are better able to handle the shattering sense of loss if tragedy strikes,” said Feinsod.

The task force report offers suggestions that may provide useful guidelines for districts of all sizes and resources. The task force recommends the following action steps:

  • Discuss the matter with your superintendent. Find out what nearby districts are doing and what resources may be available from the county government or the executive county superintendent’s office.
  • Find out about the emotional climate of your students, faculty and staff by conducting a confidential climate survey. Consult the experts listed in the task force report for guidance on how to interpret the results and to consider what further action might be appropriate.
  • Strongly consider implementing social-emotional learning programs that address the mental well-being of all children. Make sure all staff and teachers know about social-emotional learning (SEL) and what their roles are in addressing the needs of the whole child.
  • Decide whether establishing a community-based response team, involving the mayor, police, youth groups, clergy and others who deal with youth can benefit your district.

Aderhold, superintendent of the West Windsor-Plainsboro schools, stressed how important it is to take action.

“What I have learned is that there is a fundamental difference between focusing on school culture and climate and responding to a school tragedy. No community escapes suicide. However, the fact that there is a suicide should not devalue the importance of focusing on the culture and climate of a school system,” Aderhold said in the task force report. “We must pledge that we can create a community of care in our schools. We must commit to placing an intentional focus on teen depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations.”

A Rising Tide of Mental Health Issues Throughout New Jersey, for the years 2013 through 2015, 84 children between the ages of 10 and 17 died by suicide, and an additional 199 young people between the ages of 19 and 24 killed themselves, according to the 2017 New Jersey Youth Suicide Report. Those are the latest statistics available.

The task force examined dozens of studies and interviewed school officials, school psychologists, social workers, superintendents, parents and children. More than 50 school districts responded to surveys and interview requests to provide critical information.

The task force did not want to focus solely on suicide and school shootings, though these are the most alarming and visible outgrowths of mental health issues. The problem, experts say, is much broader, deeper — and closer to home — than the most horrific outcomes.

The serious emotional trouble that students are experiencing evidences itself in disturbing ways. Students are self-mutilating or cutting themselves at a higher rate than ever before. According to Mental Health America, approximately 15% of teens are reporting some form of self-injury.

Twenty percent of students between the ages of 13 and 18 live with a mental health disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Fifty percent of youth age eight to 15 who have a diagnosed mental illness did not receive mental health services in the previous year.

If the central mission of New Jersey public schools is to provide a “thorough and efficient education,” preparing students for college, career and success in life, then it is essential that schools address the mental health of their students – and the teachers and staff who work with them.

Suicide Facts and FirguresThat is why the task force strongly recommended that school districts, parents and communities learn about the opportunities provided by social-emotional learning programs. Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is being offered in a growing number of districts.

New programs and approaches are showing real promise even if it is too soon for data to prove their effectiveness.

“We’re working on the data,” one superintendent told the task force. “But I can see it with my eyes. I walk around in my school, and I can see it on the kids’ faces and in the way they treat each other. I can see that it is working.”

What Is Social-Emotional Learning? According to the national Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Alisha DeLorenzo, a licensed counselor and the former social-emotional coordinator for the Asbury Park public schools, says social-emotional learning “is not about a program. This is about an approach. It’s an integrative approach, a multi-disciplinary approach, and it is rooted in connection.

“When we have more people connected,” she said, “we will have healthier schools, and healthier families, and it just kind of ripples out that way. It is a message of sustained connection. It’s not a program you can do on a Monday morning and forget about it.”

Officials in school districts profiled in the task force report described how social-emotional learning programs improved the emotional climate in their schools.

The High Bridge Elementary School in Hunterdon County, for example, uses a therapy dog, a black Labrador puppy named Vern, to work with children. When they need a sympathetic ear, young students can sit with Vern and read him a story. Kindergartners overcome their fear of leaving their parents if they see the dog wagging his tail, waiting for them near the schoolhouse door. A child having a bad day can have his mood changed by walking the dog.

High Bridge superintendent and principal Dr. Greg Hobaugh explained that, even in his quiet community, his dedicated teachers and staff need to be ready to help children in emotional trouble.

Recently, a young boy in the school who would have entered the fifth grade died of a brain tumor. A young girl died in an accident. Social media has been a constant, disturbing threat, with older men posing as friends of classmates on social media, “catfishing” for children, trying to lure them into illicit meetings, goading them to send inappropriate pictures, Hobaugh said.

A school climate committee discusses issues and provides feedback on needed improvements. High Bridge is implementing the Second Step and Social Thinking curricula with projects and activities that help students learn life skills that can help them be successful in life.

The school district has set aside “multi-sensory rooms” to help any student overcome frustration, anxiety and tension. Guided by teachers, therapists or administrators, students can listen to calming sounds, observe “motion lighting,” or hear a waterfall. The students can bounce, jump, rock, swing, or just rest in the room. The multi-sensory rooms allow the students to be in an environment that “encourages communication of their feelings and the sharing of common experiences,” Hobaugh said. “In the multi-sensory rooms, students may be guided through problem solving, or may be guided through mindfulness activities.”

The Wingman Program Is Expanding in New Jersey High Bridge was also the first school district in the state to adopt the Wingman program, where older students mentor and befriend younger students. Program founder Ian Hockley, whose six-year-old son, Dylan, died in the December 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct., provided the first year of training free for the early adopters. Now the school is raising money to pay the ongoing training costs.

“Wingman” is not just a social-emotional learning program that is inspiring thousands of students across New Jersey to learn how to respect and help each other.

“It’s a movement. This is the ‘Butterfly Effect’ made real,” said Hockley. The “Butterfly Effect” refers to the idea that even the smallest action, as small as the beating of a butterfly’s wings, can create a current of change that spreads throughout the world.

Dylan, a young boy with autism, once told his mother that he was a beautiful butterfly. He was one of 26 people shot and killed in the Sandy Hook school shootings.

“We’re facing an epidemic of social isolation and exclusion,” Hockley said in an interview. “Those behaviors are learned, the behaviors of excluding people, and can be countered by — not teaching — but by instilling inspiring, positive behaviors that lead to inclusion. You instill kindness, generosity, respect, and the courage to reach out to others who are different.”

In the face of increasing pressures on students, rising opioid abuse and self-harming behaviors, Hockley said his program makes sure that kindness, and the willingness to express empathy for others, become part of a school’s program.

“You break down the barriers so that everybody understands not only that they’re the same, but that they have this obligation to treat other human beings with dignity and respect,” he said.
The Wingman program is necessary, he said, “because isolation and exclusion is leading to people hurting themselves, through drugs and suicide, or it is leading them to hurt others because it is their way of dealing with what has been done to them.”

Already operating in 17 schools in New Jersey, the Wingman program is set to increase to more than 40 schools next year. Hockley will be the keynote speaker in Atlantic City at the NJSBA’s Workshop conference, from Oct. 21 through Oct. 24.

It Starts with Hello In Bloomfield, Essex County, after two completed and two attempted suicides in his district in five years, Superintendent Salvatore Goncalves decided to partner with Sandy Hook Promise, a national non-profit organization founded and led by several family members whose loved ones were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

According to Sandy Hook Promise, thousands of students go through an entire day without having a single conversation with anyone. They have no friends. They sit silently in class and don’t participate.

The cost of leaving children to cope alone with depression and dark thoughts can have fatal consequences.

According to Sandy Hook Promise:

  • More than 90 percent of people who die from suicide had a diagnosable mental disorder.
  • Most mass shootings are planned for six months to a year. In almost every documented case, warning signs were given that were not understood, were not acted upon quickly, or were not shared with someone who could help.
  • In four out of five school shootings, at least one other person had knowledge of the attacker’s plan but failed to report it.
  • Seventy percent of people who commit suicide tell someone of their plans or give some other type of warning signs.
  • Guns used in about 80% of all incidents at schools were taken from the home, a friend or a relative.
  • Approximately half of all gun owners don’t lock up their guns in their homes, including 40% of households with children under age 18.

So how, the Bloomfield school administrators asked themselves, could they reach troubled children before they harmed themselves or others?

The answer, according to Sandy Hook Promise, starts simply enough.

It starts with saying “hello.”

The annual, week-long program — “Start with Hello” — is a deceptively powerful, comprehensive attempt by the district to make sure that every one of the 6,500 children has at least one, positive friendly contact with someone. The lessons of empathy and positivity learned during the week are revisited and emphasized throughout the rest of the school year.

After the grim reality of the suicides, children worked with adults to communicate a better message.

A group of dedicated parent volunteers drew chalk messages on the sidewalk leading to school, saying, “Be the reason someone smiles today.”

Teachers had signs on their desks saying, “Because nice matters.”

Doreen Bauer, a Carteret Elementary School counselor, explains how the program works.

“For kindergarten through second grade, we had (student) greeters who would wait at the door, and they had red aprons on. The students that came in were able to choose how they wanted to be greeted. It could be a hug, a smile, a high five,” Bauer said. “It was kind of cool seeing how many of the kids actually wanted a hug.”

Because Bloomfield made the bold choice to institute the program in every school, at every grade level, the school was given a national award by the Sandy Hook Promise organization, honoring its effort to create a positive school environment, Goncalves said.

“The idea of creating a climate and a culture in a building that is loving and nurturing and caring certainly sets the tone for good educational practices,” he said during an assembly filmed while accepting the award from the Sandy Hook group on Feb. 22, 2019.

In a later interview, Bloomfield administrators Keri Regina and Joseph Fleres gave additional detail about the array of social-emotional learning programs at the Essex County district, which includes:

  • A budget of $1.5 million annually.
  • About 20 staffers, including guidance counselors, who work in a variety of social-emotional programs to help students.
  • All of the 20 staffers involved in social-emotional learning hold other jobs in the district, such as teaching character education or other subjects.

Bloomfield’s social-emotional learning program, Regina said, expanded slowly over time. Crisis counselors continually monitor data collected throughout the district, and they are creating a uniform tracking and referral procedure in each of the district’s buildings.

Guidance counselors, she said, received in-service training this year regarding trauma and mental health issues. The Wingman program will be rolled out across all 11 schools in the district in the 2019-2020 academic year.

Working with the Community to Start an SEL Program Among the key findings and 71 recommendations, the NJSBA Task Force on Mental Health Services in the Public Schools recommends that boards of education learn about the social-emotional climate in their schools, and that they make plans and collect evidence that can inform the best course of action for their district.

Remember that, when an incident occurs, the community will turn to its leaders and demand to know what could have been done to prevent it.

The need for action is urgent, but the path will be different for many districts. The needs of a small rural elementary school will be different from a regional high school.

Based on interviews with experts in the field, and superintendents and board members who have already established successful social-emotional learning programs in their schools, the task force recommends that boards of education consider the following:

  • Get started, but understand that establishing a program is a process that can begin with a conversation between the superintendent and the board. What is the emotional climate in the school? What data is available to ensure that administrators’ and board members’ perceptions are accurate?
  • Consider conducting an emotional climate survey. The Search Institute in Minneapolis, Minn. offers a research-based survey tool that members of the task force believe will provide useful information. Whatever survey tool is used, make sure that it has been tested and validated so it will provide the information you need while fully protecting the confidentiality of the survey participants. Superintendents who participated in workshops conducted at the 2019 National School Boards Association conference in Philadelphia said that they found the information collected to be invaluable — and disturbing. When you ask students, teachers and staff to provide honest information, be prepared to listen to what they may say.
  • Before going too far in the process, discover what neighboring districts are doing. Engage an expert in the field to educate the local board of education. Make sure that board members are thoroughly trained and understand what social-emotional learning is.
  • Formulate an action plan. Plan to fund and implement your values.

Federal funding rules have changed. Due to revisions implemented with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Title IV funding, and other funding sources formerly reserved for fighting drugs can now be used to fund some aspects of social-emotional learning programs. How can your district qualify? What is available in partnership with neighboring districts, the county, and the state?

Start small. Build consensus. Know that, as George Scott of the Traumatic Loss Coalition told the task force, mental health is a community issue, and it is not something that the schools can handle alone. While efforts to launch a social-emotional learning program may start as a conversation between the superintendent and the board, it can expand to include the mayor and the chief of police and members of a “Community Response Team.” A community response team can include juvenile officers, school administrators, counselors, SRO/Class 3 officers, the director of student services, clergy council representatives, social workers, recreation/arts/cultural representatives, citizen advocacy groups (including ethnic groups), parent groups, and representatives of local businesses who cater to youth. As a police chief said to one member of the NJSBA task force, “When we shake hands earlier, we don’t point fingers later.”

Consider your immediate need. Are you acting to avert a crisis, or has a crisis already occurred? Once a Community Response Team is formed, what is the best way to engage the community? Would a mental health summit be appropriate? A “summit” could provide a day when a wide variety of government, business and faith-based leaders gather to address the issue and volunteer to do more.

Above all else, act. Ocean City Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Taylor has been forthright in addressing the two students who died by suicide in her district.

“You live in fear. You do. You have that happen once,” she said, “and you’ll do anything you can to try and save a child’s life,” she said in an interview before a task force meeting.

She has spoken with other school officials about mental health crises in their schools.

“They said, ‘Oh, we had a suicide. But thank God, it didn’t get in the paper. No one’s talking about it.’ And I thought, it’s terrible to have it in the paper, but at the same time, you need to talk about it.

“It’s ‘when’ something happens,” Taylor said. “Not ‘if.’ The national statistics tell you that.”

Alan Guenther is the NJSBA’s assistant editor.