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Oklahoma schools try to reduce suspensions through mental health support

Daily Oklahoman - 11/26/2018

Nov. 26--email

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Oklahoma City -- Weatherford Public Schools is developing a plan to keep kids from getting suspended, or, if that's not possible, to put the time toward preventing them from getting in trouble again.

Amy Beck, a licensed professional counselor hired by Weatherford, said teachers and other staff will have an important role in recognizing the signs of mental health issues and creating classrooms that support students who need help processing their feelings and calming down.

If students do get into trouble, the plan is to use their detention or in-school suspension to teach them how to manage their feelings, she said.

"We can offer support and not just discipline," she said.

Weatherford is one of three districts splitting $8.6 million in federal grants to improve mental health services for students. It and the Woodward and Elk City districts each will receive money to hire a licensed professional counselor and a "community manager" to build partnerships for five years.

The area west of Interstate 35 and north of Interstate 40 has fewer counselors than any other region of the state, so the grant focuses on those schools, said Kristin Atchley, executive director of counseling at the state Education Department.

Other parts of the state will get some mental health assistance from a smaller grant, worth $3.7 million. Under that grant, one person in each of five regions around the state will work with a total of 10 schools to train them about prevention, early intervention and mental health treatment.

If teachers and administrators have a better understanding of kids' mental health needs, they'll be able to focus on the root problem instead of symptoms like acting out, Atchley said. Once they have learned the basics, they can then set up a framework to meet their students' needs.

"We don't want to just punish kids when they have outbursts," she said. "It'll probably look a little different for each school."

Weatherford still is working out the details of its programs, but it plans to hold quarterly parent meetings and do prevention campaigns in schools, Beck said. They're still gathering data from the schools to determine what issues are most relevant for each.

"We do have the flexibility to develop it to best suit our students," she said.

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