Austin (KXAN) — As part of KXAN’s Save Our Students project, KXAN is sitting down with superintendents from a handful of school districts in the Austin area to talk with them about how their campuses are addressing mental health issues.

The Superintendents answer a few questions live on the KXAN morning show followed with a deeper conversation on mental health and wellness with Digital Reporter Alyssa Goard.

Austin ISD serves students in most of the City of Austin and surrounding towns. (KXAN Graphic/ Ricardo Ruano.)

Austin ISD

Superintendent, Dr. Paul Cruz

Austin Independent School District says it is the largest school district in Central Texas. Austin ISD’s superintendent, Dr. Paul Cruz, sat down with KXAN Wednesday to talk about mental health and safety in the district.

Mental Health Support

Dr. Cruz talked about School Mental Health Centers (SMHC’s) that have been brought to the district. Since 2012 the district has been installing these centers on campuses. Each center is staffed by full-time licensed, clinical therapists who offer support for students, staff, and family members.

“We saw how well-received it was, and how important it was for our students and for our teachers, that we expanded it,” Cruz said. He believes having these centers as part of the fabric of school campuses helps to erase some of the stigma around mental illness.

The program has grown since 2012, expanding to several AISD high schools. There are 45 clinics in total across the district, of which two are part-time.

“So, perhaps in the past, we would say for a student or family, ‘here’s a site to go to for additional support,’ but it might be a distance away, and we wanted to make sure it was right there, within that campus, ” Cruz said, “so students could access that support during the day, and also families could come in.”

Could these centers eventually be expanded to all AISD campuses?

“I’m seeing more and more of the need for it and more communities wanting them on the school site,” Cruz said. “This is something that folks are asking for in our schools, in our communities –our parents, our board members as well. So I’m hoping to expand to other schools because I know the need is there.”

Cruz now has educational leaders from across Texas asking him about how AISD was able to launch these SMHC’s looking to model what AISD is doing. He also has gotten feedback from teachers and administrators that having this type of mental healthcare on campus is valuable and shows students that their mental health is important.

Last week AISD’s board approved a contract with Vida Clinics, PLLC to operate all these clinics. Initially, grant funding drove the mental health support these clinics offered, but this new contract is designed to put the district toward sustainable, long-term funding for the clinics.

In the fall of 2018, Vida Clinic’s therapists worked with 2,630 people at AISD campuses. These therapists collaborate with counselors, administrators, nurses, teachers, and others on school campuses.

During the 2017-2018 school year, Vida Clinics said their data shows that high school youth who had ongoing clinical care with their licensed therapists saw increased attendance, fewer disciplinary issues, a decrease in psychological distress, a decrease in issues like headaches and stomach aches, improvements in self-esteem, problem-solving and improved performance on standardized tests.

“While we do get the big, aggregated reports and receive preliminary information about it, it’s also very case-by-case management,” Cruz said of the measurements of the SMHC’s impact. “We have to look at it student-by-student to see what the impact is.”

Vida Clinics will have therapists credentialed on panels for multiple private insurance companies and government-funded programs and AISD will provide funding to support people who are uninsured or need financial assistance.

AISD says the goal is to have no student turned away from mental health services because of their inability to afford care.

Cruz said that he would like to have more mental health support services in the district available in other languages. He added that it will be important for AISD to educate students and their families who are starting at a new school about how to get mental health help.

“I want to make sure we continue to expand and advance those services,” Cruz said.

A School Mental Health Clinic room at AISD’s Blanton Elementary School. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

AISD campuses with SMHC’s:

  • High schools: Anderson, Austin, Bowie, Crockett, Eastside Memorial, International, Lanier, LBJ, LASA, McCallum, Reagan, Travis
  • Middle Schools: Bedichek, Bertha Sadler Means, Burnet, Dobie, Fulmore, Gus Garcia YMLA, Martin, Murchison
  • Elementary schools: Andrews, Blanton, Blazier, Casey, Cook, Doss, Guerrero-Thompson, Harris, Jordan, Kocurek, Langford, McBee, Menchaca, Norman/Sims, Oak Springs, Overton, Padron, Palm, Pecan Springs, Perez, Pillow, Wooldridge, Wooten

To learn more about AISD’s School Mental Health Centers, look here.

Making campuses safer

Cruz explained that AISD is encouraging students and campus community members with the oft-repeated phrase, “if you see something, say something.”

School communities are increasingly encouraged to report and confront crises, whether it’s a mental health crisis or a threat to the safety of the very campus they are studying on.

Cruz said SMHC’s can provide resources to help people who are experiencing a mental health crisis or are having suicidal thoughts. These centers can also provide resources for family members or staff who are reporting or identifying individuals who might be struggling with mental health issues.

“It’s a very serious situation and we need to take it seriously. If a student is reaching out for help, we have to provide support,” Cruz said.

An AISD spokesperson explained that when a student reports having suicidal thoughts, a counselor will meet with that student personally to conduct a suicide risk assessment. Using the information they gain, the counselor works to make an action plan for how to go forward, which, in high-risk cases could include bringing the student to the hospital. The district explained that part of that action plan always includes reaching out to the student’s parents or guardians and helping them understand what to do next.

Dealing with security threats

AISD campus community members are also encouraged to help report things they think may threaten the safety or security of their campus. Cruz said that students, parents, and community members are encouraged to let School Resource Officers know when they have a concern. Thes officers are employed by AISD Police and two are assigned to every high school campus, one is assigned to every middle school.

“We want to make sure that our parents and our staff members our students are informed about what’s going on in the school, around school security issues, safety issues, procedures that need to be followed,” Cruz said. “I think the main thing is to make sure we’re working with our families so they know what to do in these types of situations.”

Cruz explained that even while some reports of threats may not be credible, the district needs to take each report seriously and look into it.

AISD spokesperson Cristina Nguyen explained that when it comes to notifying parents about threats against a campus, AISD handles each instance on a case-by-case basis.

“Obviously, if a lot of students are talking about a possible threat, even if we find it is not credible, we want to ensure our families hear that information from us and know our police department has investigated,” Nguyen said. “Each tip is investigated thoroughly through our AISD Police Department, at times even visiting the student at home to ensure there is no threat and speaking with parents or guardians to discuss the severity of making threats, even as a joke. “

“For the most part, our schools will then send out notices to parents so parents are also alert, and then parents can talk to their children and say, ‘I heard about this'” Cruz said.

Going forward, Cruz said he would like to do more training to keep parents and staff informed about the district’s processes for handling different types of emergencies, then making sure those details get communicated with kids.

“It helps to process these situations, what’s happening in other parts of the state and in our country, kids are aware and they have questions about it, ” Cruz said. “It’s important to take it very seriously so that we’re providing the necessary support for the student and also for that school community,”

If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional distress or suicidal crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, 24/7 confidential service you can call at 800-273-8255. There is also a free text-message service that offers 24/7 support for those in crisis and can be reached by texting 741-741. If it’s an emergency, please dial 911.

KXAN has interviewed Lake Travis ISD  and Hays CISD about solutions they are trying out as well. We will also be interviewing superintendents from Georgetown ISD, Pflugerville ISD, Round Rock ISD, and Leander ISD as part of our continuing coverage of the solutions districts are turning to when it comes to addressing mental health and wellness.