For Meikel Currence, a second-grader at Taneytown Elementary School, controlling emotions and behaviors hasn’t always been easy.
In the 2017-2018 school year, Meikel had many behavior-related issues each month. But those numbers began to decline as he worked with the school’s full-time psychologist using preventive and responsive services, and at times he benefited from daily crisis intervention and support.
So far this year, Meikel has had zero major discipline referrals.
Meikel got up during Wednesday’s Carroll County Public Schools Board of Education meeting, and told school board members that he’s spent months working on staying self to self, staying in location, using school words and following directions.
“We also use words to tell people how I feel,” he told the board.
During last year’s legislative session, the Maryland General Assembly moved forward with the Maryland Safe to Learn Act, which, while dealing with school resource officers, also has a strong focus on mental health help for students. And in addition to the law’s requirements, CCPS has been working to put a strong focus on mental health services for students for a number of reasons, from preventative safety measures to working through behavior incidents, like in Meikel’s case.
At the Wednesday board meeting, CCPS staff updated the board on progress being made in terms of the implementation of the act, and work being done to a grant application.
Dana Falls, director of student services with CCPS, said in an interview with the Times that the law requires each school to have a coordinator of mental health services, something CCPS does not yet have. Kim Muniz, the supervisor of school psychology, and Judy Klinger, the supervisor of school counseling, are sharing the responsibilities for now.
CCPS is hoping grant money from the state could fund a full-time coordinator for one year, and then, ideally, he said, the position could be built into the school system’s budget.
“[The person in this position] will try to coordinate services for students as they're … needed,” Falls said.
For example, if a threat is received by CCPS, he said, it would initially be assessed by the threat assessment team, and a mental health coordinator would be responsible to collaborate if the student was in need of mental health supports.
“But that's not going to be … a daily job,” Falls added.
And so, this position would tie into a larger goal of overall mental health work in the school system, and the person in this position would work with Muniz and Klinger to deal with non-crisis mental health supports.
Carroll County Public Schools is forming a task force to study and investigate possible causes of elementary behavioral trends, after anecdotal evidence from educators suggests an uptick in early childhood struggles
“They would be actually a service provider as well as a coordinator of service,” he added.
Falls said this position ties in with other work being done in terms of mental health, like at both Taneytown Elementary and Elmer Wolfe Elementary schools, which each have a full-time in-house psychologist, as opposed to other schools, that share psychologists.
“It’s really only the kids in crisis that get the support and the preventive work is almost impossible to do,” Falls said under the current system.
Falls is also chairing a task force that is looking into elementary school behaviors.
And while he said he didn’t want to jump ahead, because the group has only met a few times and isn’t close to done with its work of looking at root causes of behavior, additional psychologists and bumping up mental health efforts in school could be a pathway forward.
“Some of the issue that we’re deeper in … the root cause appears to be mental health,” he added.
Muniz said at the elementary level, CCPS has already seen an increase of behaviors being tied to mental health, as opposed to ADHD or conduct problems.
Fall said there also appears to be a connection with exposures to trauma, and with the opioid crisis impacting adults — some of whom are parents to kids in elementary school — another potential connection.
Falls said they’re also seeing a connection with students in poverty, or students with a learning disability or in special education, and behavioral challenges.
But, right now, they only have seen connections, but don’t know root causes.