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.
These superintendents have a conversation live on the KXAN morning show followed up with an in-depth conversation on mental health and wellness with Digital Reporter Alyssa Goard.
Superintendent, Dr. Eric Wright
Hays Consolidated Independent School District’s superintendent, Eric Wright, sat down with KXAN Tuesday morning. He explained that the district has been working hard to partner with local law enforcement and to tap into the safety and security experts nearby to make campuses safer. The district is also trying to strengthen personal relationships with students and staff as a way of boosting the overall well-being of everyone on its campuses.
Hays CISD said the largest initiative the district has to support student wellness is the 100% Hays Initiative, which aims to make sure that all students in Hays ISD are “connected to human beings.”
“So we want a teacher, advocate or a sponsor or a coach — someone that they [a student] have a close relationship with — where when they’re having difficult times they can go and speak to them and feel like they’ll be valued and heard,” Wright explained. “Also, we want them connected to other student groups so that they will have a small circle of friends, that they feel like they’re connected to. “
“We don’t want any invisible kids,” Wright said. “We don’t want any ghost kids, because we feel like those are the kids that are more apt to harm themselves or others.”
The 100% Hays Initiative was started in the 2018-19 school year.
A district spokesperson explained that last year the district got some initial data of how many students are involved in something outside of school and whether students had at least one person they felt comfortable talking with. The district is going to re-survey this year to see if they have moved the needle on getting kids more involved.
Wright talked about how in the last decade, there has been a decrease in interpersonal interaction between students, with more students interacting online or virtually. At the recommendation of a student advisory council, the district has enacted a no-cell-phones-during-class policy.
He said that students in need of mental health support are often identified in the district because of absenteeism, grade decreases, behavioral outbursts, or disciplinary issues.
“They typically cry out for help in one way or the other and it manifests itself in different forms for different kids because all of them are different, but typically that’s what we notice and that’s what we train our teachers to be on alert for,” Wright noted.
At Hays CISD, campuses have counselors and mentors who offer support to students. Organizations like Communities in Schools also go to campuses to hear students out on what they’re dealing with.
“We also utilize where we have greetings in the morning at the door so that every teacher is shaking every kid’s hand to make sure that they’re not invisible,” Wright said, explaining that these exercises that might seem small can actually have a big influence on how connected students feel to their community.
Hays CISD leans on Texas law enforcement experts to strengthen school safety
“We are right in the center between the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University and then we have a lot of different law enforcement agencies and entities,” Wright said.
Hays CISD has been working with many local law enforcement agencies to form a “standard response protocol,” something many school districts around Texas are now doing to get law enforcement and schools on the same page when it comes to emergency response.
In July, Hays CISD announced they hired Jeri Skrocki as the district’s director of safety and security. Skrocki was recognized by Governor Greg Abbott for her work in coordinating a county-wide standard response protocol in Hays County.
The position was created in the wake of the Santa Fe High School shooting in Texas. Wright said that state and national funding for the position became available as a result of some of the safety efforts following the shooting.
“I feel like we kind of have an inside track and it really helps us understand what first responders see, as compared to our vision from inside the school district, so that we help make things more user-friendly for [law enforcement]” Wright said of the new safety and security director position. “For instance, we now have WiFi set up so that law enforcement, when they arrive, they can tap into our cameras to help pinpoint — we have a series of access points for them, and we provide them with keys so that they can get in so that they can randomly check and secure our campuses.”
Wright says what happened at Santa Fe High School will impact how Hays CISD operates going forward.
“You know, it could happen to any of us at any time so we need to be as prepared as possible,” he said. “So we take our drills very [seriously]. Back in the day — we used to do virtual drills, now we don’t. Now we do interactive drills and we try to make sure that we do them at all times during the day and we are always looking for ways to enhance them and make it better.”
Wright said that the district is currently floating the idea of working with veterans who can help keep the district secure during the day or volunteer to increase the safety presence on campuses.
KXAN has interviewed Lake Travis ISD about solutions they are trying out as well. We will also be interviewing superintendents from Austin ISD, 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.