Rochester schools eye mental health screenings, behavioral strategies for students

ROCHESTER – After a tumultuous school year, Rochester Public Schools is looking at various strategies to improve the social, behavioral and mental health of students – including a potential districtwide mental health screening for students.

Officials say the idea came up as part of a strategic plan for Rochester schools over the next few years, and that more must be done to address the stress and anxiety students have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rochester Superintendent Kent Pekel said the district hopes to increase mental health access for students through initiatives such as screenings, and more partnerships with local mental health providers.

At the same time, district officials want to ease social and behavioral concerns in the classroom that have come up over the past two years.

“We do have a continuum and we need to also be addressing kids that are socially and emotionally struggling, even if it is not a diagnosable mental health condition,” Pekel said.

District staff will meet this fall to discuss mental health strategies, including how to screen Rochester’s 17,000 students. Pekel said logistics haven’t yet been discussed, such as which vendor to use, how to get parental permissions and where to hold screenings.

It could take some time to act on those strategies, as the Rochester district will undergo a University of Minnesota-led audit starting in August that could recommend other ideas.

School districts across Minnesota are grappling with similar issues. Counselors and mental health advocates say students felt disconnected learning from home for part of the 2019-20 school year and all of 2020-21. After students returned to the classroom, teachers and staff found students had socially and behaviorally regressed.

“They missed out on some of that growth,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota.

Abderholden lauded Rochester for looking into districtwide screenings. While screenings aren’t meant to diagnose mental illness, they do show signs that teachers might miss that a student needs mental health support.

“Kids who for example may have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may see those symptoms,” Abderholden said. “Kids whose depression comes out as anger, you might see that. But kids who internalize things, you may not see.”

Counselors for the Minneapolis Public Schools offer general mental health screenings to middle school students as as part of the district’s college and career readiness curriculum, and experts hope more will follow.

Mental health advocates have pushed for years for schools to offer screenings. A DFL-led bill at the Legislature earlier this year would have offered more school funding to hire mental health professionals and required mental health screening services, but it wasn’t included in an omnibus bill.

Lawmakers passed a $93 million bill this past session to fund mental health initiatives, which includes more school- and shelter-linked mental health services as well as child crisis stabilization beds. Rochester officials hope to use some of that funding to add counselors, psychologists and other staff, but it could take some time since the state has a shortage of mental health professionals.

In the meantime, district staffers plan to concentrate on ways to improve the atmosphere at schools that appeared to see an uptick in fights and classroom disruptions last fall. Parents shared student fight videos online and demanded school officials address what people felt were increasing behavioral issues.

Yet a recent review of data shows incidents where students were sent to the office were down slightly compared to 2018-19, the district’s last full year of in-classroom learning before the pandemic.

District officials want to strengthen social ties with students at school. While staffers caution that students who get in trouble don’t necessarily need mental health support, some students may benefit from extra academic help or a little more attention outside the classroom setting.

That could mean working on social skills, or taking disruptive students outside the classroom but keeping them in school to follow along with lessons through distance learning. It could even mean adding elective classes and extracurricular activities in middle school, where student incidents occur the most.

“We have rich extracurriculars at the high school level, and for lots of different reasons we’ve really disinvested from a lot of that kind of coursework at the middle school level,” Pekel said. “We’ve got to bring that back.”

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