A look at Jeffco Schools mental health services

The nation has seen an increase in school violence, suicide, and mental health disorders, and Colorado is no exception. In Jeffco, there are a number of resources and services in place to support all Jeffco Schools students. 

Kevin Carroll, chief student success officer, works in tandem with John McDonald, executive director of Jeffco Schools Security & Emergency Management, on crisis response and intervention. Together, they rely on a number of programs, grants, mental health service providers and programs to provide both pro-active and reactive support and services.  

Mental health programs and services are available to all Jeffco students, ranging from pre-school to high school, Carroll explained. These range from Tier 1 services — pro-active and preventative services — to Tier 3 services — intense support and reactive services.  

Mental Health Support: School Counselors

Each Jeffco middle school typically has at least one school counselor per each grade level. High schools have three to five counselors, depending on per-pupil allocations for student-based budgeting (SBB).  

While there are district guidelines for student-counselor ratios, schools can use SBB dollars to adjust those numbers.

School counselors help with study skills, scheduling, and college and career preparation, Carroll said. They also provide preventative and Tier 1 interventions.  In Jeffco, school counselors are typically only in middle and high schools.

Mental Health Providers: School Psychologists and School Social Workers

School psychologists and social workers are a second form of mental health support in Jeffco Schools, Carroll said. School psychologists and school social workers are trained specifically to work with school-aged children.

School psychologists and social workers support students on Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and provide more intensive (Tier 3) support and services.

Jeffco’s elementary schools typically are staffed with a half-time or full-time school psychologist or social worker. District guidelines recommend and fund a full-time psychologist or social worker in elementary schools with 600 students or more. Schools with less than 600 students are alloted a half-time psychologist or social worker, or can use SBB dollars for a full-time one. 

There has been a major increase in student based budgeting (SBB) dollars being used to increase mental health services in schools. During the 2017-2018 school year, 42 schools — mostly at the elementary level — used SBB dollars to fund a full-time psychologist or social worker. That number increased to 66 schools using SBB dollars for a full-time staff member for 2018-19, Carroll said.    

Jeffco’s middle and high schools all have a full-time psychologist or social worker, Carroll said. Jeffco’s K-8 schools also usually have a full-time psychologist or social worker on staff, and may receive extra support if they have a larger student body, Carroll said. 

The district’s 7-12 schools currently are allocated two full-time psychologists or social workers, Carroll said. This in part because these schools include both middle school and high school student populations.  

Mental Health Support for Special Education Center Programs

Another type of support includes the number of special education (SPED) center-based programs. Those programs serve students who need more intensive services. This includes students who need services for behavior, autism, severe learning needs, and those who are deaf or hard of hearing.  

The district only allocates a half-time staff member for those social-emotional/behavioral needs programs. Autism center programs only receive a 0.2 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff person, who works the equivalent of one full day a week. Although these students are likely to have higher mental health needs, state and federal funding play a role, Carroll said.

In addition, 44 Jeffco preschools offer special education services through Child Find. Carroll said that several preschools recently switched from funding speech language pathologists to funding mental health service providers. 

Mental Health Support for Gifted and Talented Students

Jeffco has approximately 11,000 students identified as Gifted and Talented. Of those, 85 percent of students on Advanced Learning Plans (ALPs) are in neighborhood schools, while the other 15 percent are enrolled in one of Jeffco’s GT center-based programs.  

Two years ago, the GT department allocated funds to develop four GT counselor positions to provide additional support. Each counselor serves a quarter of the district. Together they provide services for all students with  ALPs.

Jeffco Schools is adding two more GT counselors for the 2018-2019 school year, Carroll said. A combination of grants and general fund dollars will fund the two new additional mental health positions.

The GT counselors recently started training with school psychologists, social workers, and counselors in order to better partner with the other mental health staff. The shared trainings help them share a common language, and provide additional tools and skills for all mental health practitioners, Carroll said.  

Social Emotional Learning Specialists

The Social Emotional Learning Specialist (SELS) position was created to provide extra support to middle school students, Carrol said. Thirty-four SELS work in schools that serve middle school-aged students, including all K-8, 5-8, 6-8, and 7-12 neighborhood and options schools.

One SELS was added to each middle school beginning with the 2016-17 school year.

Middle school is a key time to provide both pro-active and re-active services in order to prevent dangerous and at-risk behaviors, Carroll explained.

SELS provide preventative services and address specific identified needs based on Jeffco’s Climate & Culture and Make Your Voice Heard survey data. SELS also consult with the principal and staff to address specific issues in their school population. In addition, all SELS are nationally-certified Mental Health First-Aid trainers.

Five other Jeffco articulation areas — Standley Lake, Arvada West, Conifer, Pomona, and Bear Creek — also have area SELS. Carroll said those five articulation areas currently have the highest needs based on data from threat assessments, suicide risk assessments, truancy and course completion rates. Staff in each articulation area work together to determine how best to use and allocate these positions to the schools, Carroll explained.

For the 2018-2019 school year, Jeffco Schools will add six additional full-time SELS to cover 12 elementary schools. Changes in the articulation area SELS for Arvada West and Pomona bring the total number of elementary SELS to 16. That number does not include additional SELS in Lakewood, Wheat Ridge, and Jefferson articulation area elementary schools, which are funded by a School Health Professional grant.

Jefferson Center for Mental Health

The Jefferson Center for Mental Health (JCMH) also offers mental health services to Jeffco Schools with high free and reduced lunch rates. JCMH provides these at a reduced cost to the district through grants. 

JCHM’s services allow schools with higher needs to more easily supplement their district-allocated mental health services.

Schools often hire an interventionist or a clinician. Interventionists are mental health providers available to the general school population. Interventionists can also provide preventive Tier 1 and Tier 2 services and skills, such as Brain Wise or smaller pro-social skills groups. Clinicians are mental health providers who offer intensive Tier 3 services to a smaller population of students who often do not qualify for services under an IEP.  

Each year Jeffco spends about $750,000 on services provided by JCMH.

Registered Nurses 

Although registered nurses are the first people students turn to for help with physical health, they also play a role in Jeffco’s mental health supports, Carrol said.

“Registered nurses are exceptional at supporting physical and mental health,” he explained. 

However, Jeffco only has 44 registered nurses for the whole district — approximately one nurse for every 2,000 students. In addition, those nurses spend a large amount of time consulting with school clinic aids instead of directly supporting students, Carroll said. 

In 2017-18, Jeffco Schools qualified for a School Health Professional Grant (SHPG), which is funded through the tax on Colorado marijuana sales.

The SHPG provides $2 million over three years to address at-risk behaviors and substance abuse. Lakewood, Wheat Ridge, and Jefferson now have a full-time registered nurse at each high school, Carroll said. Those articulation areas were chosen because they have the most marijuana dispensaries.

In addition, each elementary school in those articulation areas also has a half-time SEL.  Carroll hopes that the data will show that having a registered nurse helps prevent substance abuse and at-risk behaviors.

Other Mental Health Programs

  • Counselor Core is a grant-funded district program that allows middle school counselors to loop to high school as their eighth graders transition to ninth grade.  This program is currently in 12 Jeffco middle and high schools. In 2018-2019, Jeffco will implement an elementary school program in select schools. That program is based on research that shows third grade reading scores best predict who will drop out of high school.  
  • Schools as Community Hub is a program being piloted at Arvada High School, Arvada K-8, and Jefferson 7-12.  The goal is to make sure no child suffers from hunger, preventable illness, lack of dental care, or lack of mental health supports. It coordinates services throughout the community to support the whole child.  
  • School Based Community Health Centers are currently in place at Rose-Stein Elementary School and Alameda High School. They will be added to Golden and Arvada high schools in 2018-19  through an Innovation Fund grant.  The centers focus on prevention, early identification, and treatment of students’ mental and physical health.  

Safe2Tell and Suicide Risk Assessment Data

Safe2Tell is a statewide Colorado program that allows students, parents, teachers, and the community to anonymously report concerns about their safety or the safety of others. Reports to Safe2Tell have gone up drastically over the years. This could be because more students are in crisis, or simply because more students are using the program.  

“Prevention is one of the hardest things to measure,” Carroll said. He added that it is good that reports are increasing because kids are using it.  

Carroll sees the same trend with suicide risk-assessment reports. There are more reports now — 2,200 reports in 2017-18 vs 1,600 reports in 2016-17. However, the percentage of reports determined to be “high risk” is not increasing, he said.  

In addition, suicide related to bullying is not the most common reason the district does suicide assessments. Carroll said that 50 percent of suicide risk assessments are related to family issues. The second leading cause is relationship issues, he said.  Both issues peak in middle school.  

What’s Missing?

Carroll said despite the progress that Jeffco has made in providing mental health resources, there are still more unaddressed needs. They include:

  • Early intervention for Jeffco’s elementary school students, ideally in the form of half-time SELs in every elementary school
  • Full-time mental health providers in every school
  • More general fund dollars added to special education so those dollars are not restricted to IEP students only. That change would allow schools to fund additional mental health staff who are allowed to provide services to all students, whether or not they have an IEP. This is important because while Jeffco’s enrollment has decreased slightly in recent years, the number of students who qualify for special educations services continues to increase, as does the number of students with intensive physical and mental health needs.

However, all of those needs require more funding.

Karyn Peabody

Karyn Peabody, a parent of two Jeffco students and Jeffco resident since 2001, graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a degree in Neuroscience and Behavior and a minor in Education and then went on to combine these two passions by pursuing an Educational Specialist degree in School Psychology at the University of Colorado, Denver. In her freer time, she can be found on her bike, her horse, her skis, or her own two feet exploring and enjoying all that is Colorado. Please visit our "About Us" page to learn more about Karyn and our other writers.

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