Under Pressure: Gorham High takes team approach to mental health

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Gorham High School Principal Brian Jandreau, left, School Resource Officer Wayne Drown and social worker Claudine Emerson are members of a student services team that focuses on relationships to proactively reduce chances of violence.

SRO Wayne Drown, right, keeps a close eye on Gorham High School. Drown is pictured with Gorham Deputy Police Chief Christopher Sanborn on March 15, the student walkout day.

This is the second in a series.

GORHAM — The 17 victims recently gunned down in a Florida high school has fostered renewed attention to mental health issues as worries grow among students, parents and high school staffs nationally.

At Gorham High School, officials have taken a proactive approach to thwart violence by creating a team to deal with problems, increasing the budget for counselors, and emphasizing the importance of relationships with students.

A school student support services team led by Principal Brian Jandreau meets regularly and its members are ever present in the school’s corridors.

“We’re out there in the building,” Jandreau said in a recent interview along with team members, Gorham High School social worker Claudine Emerson, and School Resource Officer, Wayne “Pooch” Drown. “It’s through relationships we reduce the chance of school violence.”

Besides Jandreau, Emerson, and Drown, the team members include assistant principals Ryan Watts and Christina Cifelli, other on-staff social workers, a nurse and school counselors. The high school has four school counselors (once known as guidance counselors), and three social workers with one designated for special education students.

In a recent principal’s message posted on the school’s webpage, Jandreau said he hopes students with problems will seek help from support service team members.

The team members meet regularly for an hour on Wednesdays to discuss and share information. Common student issues include acting up and self-isolation. Jandreau said the team focus has headed off a fight and interrupted those who might want to hurt themselves.


Increasing the counseling budget

Costs budgeted for school counselors at the high school has increased sharply in the past 11 years while student numbers have declined a bit.

According to statistics compiled by Assistant Superintendent Christopher Record, the school district budgeted $169,936 for high school counselors in the fiscal year 2007 and that number for the present fiscal year 2018 has jumped up to $401,565. The high school in 2007 had nearly 900 students, according to an American Journal article in 2013, but the number has declined to a present enrollment of about 850.

“The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a counselor ratio of 250 to 1 across all levels,” Jandreau said.  “In 2007, when we only had three counselors, our ratio was about 300 students per counselor. Currently, one of our four counselors is part time at GHS and part-time at GMS. So, we actually have 3.6 counselors at GHS, which brings us in line with ASCA recommendations. I share this because I would not describe the budgeting as extra or superfluous but rather as needed.”
“Our school counselors focus on a number of student needs, including academic and social-emotional supports. This year, our school counselors have had 3,527 student appointments.  Of these, 57 percent have been around academic support, 27 percent have to do with post-secondary planning, and 16 percent can be categorized as providing social and emotional support. The 16 percent equates to 566 appointments on the topic of social and emotional support.”
The district’s newest position is what it calls the “8-9th transition counselor.” Jandreau said. The position is important in meeting the needs of students and school safety.
“The intent of creating this position was to build positive relationships with 8th-grade students in order to support their transition to Gorham High School,” Jamdreau said. “We are pleased that 8th graders arrive as 9th graders with a definite support person in place (that) they quickly recognize. This counselor arrives with these new 9th graders in the fall fully aware of their strengths, interests, and needs. This is valuable information for teachers and other staff as we then try to create a welcoming and safe school environment.”
Counselors are also available in crisis situations for students such as those struggling with grief following deaths of classmates or friends in nearby school districts.  “The social workers and school counselors provide the counseling in a crisis situation,” Emerson said. “If we need more support, there are local agencies that will send crisis counselors to our school.”

Relationships with students

Emerson, who has been a Social Worker at Gorham High School for 15 years, said occasionally the duties of school counselors overlap with the roles of social workers. “But, school counselors frequently refer students with serious mental health issues to the social workers,” Emerson said.

When Emerson started in September of 2003 at the high school, she recalled there were two part-time social work positions. “During my first year, I met with students that had interpersonal conflict and adjustment issues. The issues were acute and had minimal impact on academic achievement,” Emerson said. “Over the years, the needs have become more serious requiring a team approach to support the student.”

Emerson said the issues were once more about students paying attention in classes, but now issues include loneliness, withdrawal and anxiety. Students want a “sense of belonging,” she said.

“I probably see 20 to 25 students in a week,” Emerson said. “It’s all about rapport and relationship building.”

She said most are willing students and the number represents a 50/50 ratio in gender. “I try to tell students we’re here for them,” Emerson said.

“It has been a wonderful and rewarding experience working with teenagers,” Emerson said. ” I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”

She sees perhaps 120 students during the school year and the three high school social workers who as a group likely meet with more than 200. “We have an open door policy,” Emerson said.

In recent years, Emerson has spent considerably more time on the telephone with parents. Jandreau also invites parents to contact him.

“I’ll echo that,” Officer Drown said.

In some cases, Emerson recommends outside therapy. She said there are counselors available in Gorham within walking distance, but the town isn’t served yet by Metro bus service. For therapy, sliding pay scales, she said, are a possibility to make it affordable for families.

“I can’t mandate it, but I can highly recommend it,” Emerson said about outside therapy.

But Drown, a key member of the student support team, said judges can mandate therapy if the student is involved in a criminal case. He said a state juvenile corrections officer sometimes attends the support team meetings to offer advice as well.

The support services team is “not soft on crime,” Drown said.

Drown said 15 years ago problems were more behavioral in nature. “Now, it’s mental health,” Drown said.

The veteran resource officer said police have heightened their presence at the high school with Gorham Police Chief Daniel Jones and other officers actually teaching some classes in the school.

Beginning his daily routine, Drown arrives at the school about 7:15 a.m. and begins his day with “buzzing” around the parking lot in his police cruiser. He’s in the building the entire time students are present. The school day begins at 7:50 a.m. and lets out at 2 p.m.

Drown is popular among the students and wears more than just his police hat. “A teacher said we’re safer because of Pooch,” Jandreau said.

Emerson described Drown as “a social worker with a gun.”

But, Drown doesn’t don his police cap unless necessary. Many students feel comfortable approaching Drown. “I’ve had kids say, here’s what’s going on.”

“We all listen,” Drown said, reiterating the importance of the team effort and how it deals with students. “Treat them like a person.”

“It’s relationships, relationships,” Drown said.

Last year, a student went to a team member to report a bomb threat in the school. The threat proved a hoax but Jandreau said the support team reviewed the school’s crisis plan.

To ramp up security, Drown recommended that the main office be relocated from the Morrill Avenue end of the building to the opposite end where buses discharge and pick up students. “This school needs to be flipped,” Drown said.

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or rlowell@keepmecurrent.com.

The series

Part 1: The challenges facing efforts to integrate mental-health support in area schools.

This week: The role of the school counselor isn’t what it used to be.
Next week: Students regularly practice lock-down and active-shooter procedures; we’ll examine the protocols and their impact.

Mental health resources

• Cumberland County Crisis Response: Toll-free crisis intervention and suicide hotline, available to any resident of Cumberland County 24 hours a day at 888-568-1112. More information at https://goo.gl/8jjaas.

• NAMI Maine Helpline: Confidential helpline for peers, family members, friends, professionals and law enforcement, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Toll-free at 800-464-5767, press “1.” Email: helpline@namimaine.org. More info at https://goo.gl/FWCAoG.

• Maine 211: Connect with specialists 24/7; a free and confidential service. Dial 211, text your zip code to 898-211, email Info@211Maine.org, or go online at https://211maine.org/.

• Maine Behavioral Health:  24/7 information about treatment options. A “Rapid Access” program also allows callers to receive a mental health assessment quickly to begin receiving services. Call 844-292-0111.

 Federal Bureau of Investigation: To report a tip to the FBI Boston Office, which covers threats in the state of Maine, available 24/7, call 857-386-2000 or go online at: https://tips.fbi.gov/.