Austin (KXAN) — As part of the Save Our Students project, KXAN is sitting down with superintendents from a handful of school districts in the Austin area.

These superintendents have a conversation live on the KXAN morning show followed up with an in-depth conversation on mental health and school safety with Digital Reporter Alyssa Goard.

Leander ISD serves students in Williamson and Travis Counties northwest of Austin. (KXAN Graphic/ Ricardo Ruano).

Leander Independent School District

Superintendent Dr. Bruce Gearing

Dr. Bruce Gearing doesn’t officially start as Leander ISD’s new superintendent until next week, but as he gets prepared for the job, KXAN sat down with him to talk about his plans for the district and his hopes for addressing mental health. Gearing comes to Leander ISD from Dripping Springs ISD. He was also named on Monday as a finalist for the 2019 Superintendent of the Year award by the Texas Association of School Boards.

Gearing explained that LISD’s board has been adding counselors to the district to increase the ratio of counselors to students.

In 2017, LISD hired six additional counselors to meet the academic and emotional needs of our children. The district noted that LISD also has a behavior specialist and licensed specialists in school psychology to work with students.

Gearing describes his approach to mental health in leading DSISD as “targeted,” and he hopes to bring that same focus on mental health to LISD.

“I think Dripping Springs and Leander ISD are actually very similar districts in terms of their student body make-up, in terms of their socioeconomic status, so we encounter some very similar kinds of issues with our student body,” Gearing said.

Gearing explained that DSISD has many groups involved trying to support students’ mental health. For example, the district has a mental health task force that has been meeting to discuss the matter.

“We’ve had great partnerships in the community, not only with faith-based organizations but also with mental health entities: Seton Southwest, St. David’s HealthCare,” he said. “Also, our Dripping Springs Education Foundation is in a very strong partnership with the school district to address this issue head-on.”

Gearing acknowledges school districts have limitations in the mental health resources they can offer. For example, he said there’s always a need for more staff to deal with crisis moments for students. That is why he believes in districts leaning on community partner organizations for help.

Gearing said that Leander ISD already has many community partners who will be helpful as the district tries to boost the emotional well-being of students.

He said that DSISD’s goal is to put a licensed mental health professional in every school within the next 10 years. Gearing said DSISD is in the process of hiring a licensed clinical social worker at its high school in the 2019-2020 school year. DSISD is also adding additional counseling staff to its elementary schools, he explained.

Gearing noted that Leander ISD, which has around 41,000 students, is significantly larger than DSISD. Gearing believes it is “absolutely possible” even in a large school district to show students that the school community cares about their individual needs.

“We have to work really hard to break down the stigma that’s attached to [mental health] so that students, in particular, will reach out for help when they need it,” Gearing said.

He believes school districts need to focus on students’ emotional and mental health starting in kindergarten and continuing all the way through the time they graduate from high school.

“And, of course, there are cases that are very severe where there are circumstances that we can’t control as a school district, that we have to get further one-on-one intervention for, from either our staff who are trained or from outside entities and professionals who can help with that,” he said.

Gearing believes it will be important for teachers and staff members to build personal relationships with students to truly support those students’ mental health needs.

“When we really know our students and understand who they are and we know a little bit about their personal lives, and we understand what their struggles are, we are in a much better position to help them over time,” he explained.

KXAN has also interviewed Round Rock ISD, Pflugerville ISDGeorgetown ISD Lake Travis ISD,  Hays CISD  , and Austin ISD  as part of our continuing coverage of the solutions districts are turning to when it comes to addressing mental health and safety.