BOONE, NC — Conversations about school and student safety are often centered around physical measures — barriers, background checks and response plans, and while those elements serve a crucial role — for the Watauga County Schools Student Services Staff, a student’s mental health and well-being is the foundational element of school safety and student success.
As the school district continues to evolve and expand on the safety and security measures it has in place, support for student mental health is a constant fixture in the conversation. With that in mind, WCS brought on Licensed Clinical Social Worker Jennifer Smith at the start of this school year to serve in a newly-created position as Watauga’s full time district Mental Health Specialist.
Dr. Paul Holden, Watauga’s director of student services, said the new role was wide-ranging in its responsibilities, and would be an important part of the district’s overall student services mission going forward.
“Ms. Smith’s qualifications as an LCSW allow her to provide mental health therapy and services to students and their families in schools across our district,” Holden said. “This new job role on our team is quite diverse — Ms. Smith is available on a daily basis to provide assessment for any students who are in acute crisis. Additionally, she is responsible for being the liaison with the mental health agencies who provide school-based mental health services for our students. She works alongside school-based therapists from outside agencies to provide therapy to WCS students.”
Superintendent Scott Elliott said that schools have been forced to respond to changes in mental health services in the community.
“Years ago we would not have provided these services to our students at school. There were many different agencies providing many different services,” Elliott said. “But in recent years the scope of services in the community has declined while the need among our students and families has increased. We are just trying to fill a void and help our students with what they need to be successful in school and life.”
For her own part, Smith has hit the ground running in her new role, providing therapy and support to students personally, while also setting the framework for a new team of therapists and social workers she calls The Watauga County Schools Impact Initiative. The team acts as an additional resource for students and families who might need elevated services beyond what is typically provided at school.
Smith said she started the school year working with counselors, administrators and staff at each school to get an idea of what systems were already in place, and learning how her team might supplement their existing programs to best serve students. She said that each school in the district has a unique culture and set of circumstances, and that her team has been able to work with staff across the county to facilitate a collaborative and connected approach to providing mental health services to students and families.
“Before we get involved with a student who has been referred to us, we work with the existing support team within the school to determine what services they are already getting and what other specialists are involved,” Smith said. “While we are providing services to a student, we have weekly check-in meetings with the whole team — teachers, administrators, parents and counselors to discuss their progress and situation.”
Holden said Smith’s work with the Impact Team and her commitment to involving school administration and other support staff in the services they provide to students had been a step in the right direction for student safety across the district.
“At Watauga High School, we have Jennifer Wandler — another school social worker — as well as Smith, WHS Principal Chris Blanton, four school counselors, the director of student services, the WHS Graduation Coach, and several graduate social work interns, who meet weekly as an interdisciplinary team to assess individual students and their mental health,” Holden said. “The team can then develop strategies to assist students or refer them for services. In addition, the team can serve as a comprehensive assessment for students who verbalize an intention to harm themself or others.”
Smith said that currently, her team serves 41 students across seven schools who have been referred for additional support, but she believes that as the team grows and is able to serve more students, the positive impact on student safety will only increase.
“I feel like we are on the front lines of student safety, and the better we get to know our students and gain their trust, I believe the more informed we will be,” Smith said. “That means, when there is an issue, we don’t need to assume anything or jump to conclusions, we know more about each individual student’s situation who we serve.”
Smith said that when there is an issue like a threat of violence, there is often a great deal of misinformation and rumor involved. She said her team hopes to mitigate that by widening the safety net of people who are familiar with individual student’s situations, that way student services staff is able to react to the reality of a situation in real time rather than the broad and sometimes misleading hearsay that surrounds it.
“Often, we are working against the rumor mill when there is the suggestion of a threat, and that causes difficulty and concern among students and parents. The more we work together and involve each other in the way we serve students, we can reassure everyone that we have all student’s safety in mind and we were on top of it,” Smith said.
Currently, The Impact Team is made up of Smith and two Appalachian State graduate school interns under supervision Allie Graves and Madison Schaffer.
Elliott said the work of the Impact Team was an important part of the district’s mental health response.
“We really view these services as an extension of the educational experience. We want all students to be healthy and able to learn and grow throughout their school years,” Elliott said. “And, I think our team is working really hard to provide a wide range of prevention and safety options in our schools. There is no one single thing that is the solution. From mental health services to school resource officers to more community partnerships, it has to be a comprehensive approach and that is what we are trying to do.”