By Chris Eversole
Mustang Public Schools officials are responding to the loss of a student last week by vowing to enhance their already strong efforts to promote the emotional health of students.
“An event like this forces you to look at what you have in place, what kind of strategies are going on, are they effective?” interim Superintendent Charles Bradley said in a discussion with the Mustang News following the death of a 15-year-old student of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Mustang schools have been a leader in helping students, from pre-kindergarten to high school developing good coping skills, said the six administrators in the meeting.
“It’s our responsibility to consider what type of environment are we creating so that they can establish healthy relationships so that they can focus on the academic side,” Bradley said.
He noted that the schools’ No. 1 job is academics. “But I feel that you are doing a disservice to the students if that’s all you focus on – if you didn’t focus on the emotional side too, so that the whole child will develop,” Bradley said.
Everyone is involved
Kathy Blackwell, the Canyon Ridge Intermediate School principal, said that not just teachers and administrators, but also support staff, are involved.
“We try early on – to catch some things, if they’re at risk – as well as to develop strategies to build resiliency, build relationships and get some social skills,” Blackwell said.
“We feel a shared purpose helping kids feel confident, to build resilience to stress, to build hope for the future,” High School Principal Teresa Wilkerson said. “It extends so far beyond academics.
One strategy is that counselors provide mini-lessons on relationships in pre-K through eighth-grade classrooms. In addition, counselors in every school work to touch every student in some manner.
Those lessons cover five topics – health choices, self-awareness, kindness and peer relationships, bullying prevention and career exploration.
In the lessons, depending on the grade levels, the counselors talk about suicide prevention.
“We help students see a bigger purpose after their years here,” said Stacy Edwards, director of elementary schools.
“We talk about who to go to when you need help. It’s important for our little ones to know that they’re surrounded by adults.
“If they are in crisis, or if they need someone to talk to – a classroom teacher or it can be a principal or a counselor or a cafeteria worker – they know who’s someone they can really connect with.”
“We also talk about how you ‘de-bug,’ if someone is bothering you,” said Assistant Superintendent Tracy Skinner.
Special groups help students
Sometimes school staff have a group of students who are experiencing divorce in their families share their experiences. Some groups are for kids who are having trouble-making friends.
Wilkerson noted that the “freshman success class” covers mental health concepts.
In addition, the high school has support groups for students. “We send a survey that gives students an opportunity to tell us if they need help,” she said. “We have to evolve as society changes.”
Some high school students are hurting, including ones whose parents have cancer and ones whose parents are divorcing.
One of the high support groups deals with grief.
“Kids who have lost their parents are grieving, and they need support from us,” Wilkerson said. “The whole child is important to us.”
The school district has a contract for counseling services with Oklahoma Family Counseling.
“When a student says to a teacher or another trusted adult in our building that they’re hurting in one way or another or that they’re sad or they’re defeated, they have the opportunity for their parent to partner with us and for them to get outside counseling,” Wilkerson said.
The high school gets in touch parents – offering a counseling assessment – when students make comment such as they would like to hurt themselves or they’re feeling really sad.
“It’s nice to be able to have the student assessed by an outside agency and tell us they’re healthy to come back to school,” she said.
The high school counseling staff is proactive. “We reach out to students that teachers see need help all the time,” Wilkerson said.
Each student has teachers, administrators, counselors, custodial worker, cafeteria workers and school resource officers available to them.
“We say, ‘If there is anyone you feel comfortable with, ask for help,’” she said.
Getting students involved
The high school pushes for student be involved in student clubs.
“We’re just now starting a fishing club,” Wilkerson said. “Our policy at the high school is that if you want a club, you find a sponsor, and we’re going to do our best to respond to a student need.”
Eighty-four percent of high school students are in a club or organization. “That’s saying a lot when you have 3,350 students, and that many students are willing to be a part of more than themselves,” she said.
The high school clubs include SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Acceptance). “Every student is accepted,” Wilkerson said.
There’s also a Ukulele Club and one devoted to anime (animation based in Japan).
Schools at all levels are developing more clubs, noted Assistant Superintendent Tracy Skinner. In addition to a running club and a choir, elementary, middle and intermediate schools have clubs, including ones devoted to archery, art, reading and robotics.
“We’re trying at all levels to find out the interests of students and get them plugged in,” Skinner said.
Wilkerson added: “They’ve bringing that love and that passion to high school.”
Canyon Ridge has a STEM and robotics club. “As a result, at the high school, we’re going to have one of the premier programs in the state in these areas,” Wilkerson said.
Blackwell sees this benefit of more clubs: “It puts more people in their lives who can pick up on when they’re having concerns and when they need to work on relationships.”
School is a safe place for most students. “It’s the highlight of their day,” Wilkerson said.