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.
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.
Pflugerville Independent School District
Superintendent, Dr. Douglas Killian
Pflugerville ISD Superintendent Dr. Douglas Killian told KXAN that the type of mental health support students in his district need varies widely.
The district is trying a host of things to reach students and their families when it comes to mental health. Among those, is a pilot program through Johns Hopkins University to educate high school students, teachers, and parents about depression through using “carefully developed educational tools.” The goal of the program is to convey that depression can be treated and to encourage those who may be experiencing depression to reach out for help.
This Adolescent Depression Awareness Program is based out of the JHU School of Medicine and will be piloted in health classes at Hendrickson High School and Pflugerville High School in PFISD. A spokesperson for the district explained that training of staff for this program begins this fall.
“We’re really excited about that,” Killian said. “They’re going to work with our staff, they’re going to look at behaviors that our kids have, and we’re going to be able to identify kids that potentially are going through crises and be able to reach out to them.”
It’s just one of several new partnerships the district is forming to reach kids in different communities.
“I don’t think the answer for mental health and social-emotional learning is one fits all,” he said.
Last year, the district began working with the “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative to start a program for mentoring young men of color at PFISD high schools. The district is also starting a partnership with the Seedling mentorship nonprofit which works to support youth who have incarcerated parents.
“We want to address kids wherever their needs are, and we want to do it in a variety of ways because you have to have an adult that you feel cares about you that you can go to, we have to have programs in a variety of [areas] to reach those kids,” Killian said.
PFISD has been training its staff on social-emotional learning, hosting events to better educate them on how to address students’ needs.
Killian explained that registered nurses on their campuses also have a lot of training in mental health.
“So it’s another area where I think we can leverage those relationships with faculty and staff to reach out to kids,” he said.
The district has also been expanding it’s counseling services.
“I would like more social workers, we added more this year and I think we need more,” Killian said. “I think they serve a very important place for our kids.
“Because when you come to school, we know our major job is education, but you know it’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: you have to start with the fundamental things before you can reach the next level,” he continued. “If [the students are] are coming to school hungry, if they don’t have clothing, all those kinds of things, we’ve got to do something about that, and we’re being proactive about getting folks in our school system who can take care fo those needs for our kids so that they feel taken care of and they can be comfortable enough to learn.”
Killian believes students today are crying out for help with mental health more than they ever have been before.
“I don’t think it’s because there are more kids in distress, I think it’s because it’s more acceptable and society doesn’t have as much of a stigma about those kinds of challenges now, and that’s refreshing,” he said.
Pflugerville ISD uses a program called Anonymous Alerts to allow district community members to submit anonymous tips — either by the internet or through an app.
Killian said that this app is used regularly by people submitting a range of tips: from threats to school campuses to calls about concerns for a student’s mental health.
Wednesday, Killian said that someone reported through the app about an incident. That tip, along with an in-person report to a campus administrator, led the district to send out a police unit after-hours to do a wellness visit at that student’s home and to make sure the student’s parent was aware of what was going on.
Killian said there can be cycles where the district receives more tips about potential security threats.
“After the Santa Fe shooting, obviously everybody was on edge, so we had lots of tips related to potential school shootings — somebody who might have talked about something — and as sad as it is, some kids were making jokes and things,” Killian explained. “But we have to take all of those things seriously and run all of those things down to a conclusion to make sure their kids are safe to come to school .”
KXAN has interviewed Georgetown ISD, Lake Travis ISD, Hays CISD , and Austin ISD about solutions they are trying out as well. We will also be interviewing superintendents from 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.