CCISD support dog

Prevention specialist Amy Killgore looks down at her support dog, Aldo, in League City on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Killgore and Aldo visit schools in Clear Creek Independent School District to help alleviate students’ school anxieties.

In the months after the May 18 shooting at Santa Fe High School, districts across Galveston County have poured millions of dollars into campus security upgrades, but some education experts argue improvement in mental health programs is more important.

“People’s anxiety is really high right now,” said Laurie Rodriguez, director of special programs for Dickinson Independent School District. “That’s a big piece we are focusing on right now — mental health prevention and critical incident and stress management. We’re working on the prevention side.”

Counselors are seeing between 57 and 81 students each week in Santa Fe Independent School District, spokeswoman Patti Hanssard said.

While metal detectors, more security officers and student identification badges drew most of the attention, many county districts and security committees also made changes in mental health protocols and staffing.

Many officials, including at Santa Fe, said they weren’t sure students this school year were more stressed because of the shooting, but did acknowledge some of the changes were good as a preventative measure.

“We don’t want to just plan reactions with the idea that something is inevitable,” said Natalie Uranga, the director of student counseling and student services at Clear Creek Independent School District. “We want to have the structure and personnel in place to prevent these incidents.”

Clear Creek was one of several area districts, including Friendswood and Santa Fe, that increased counseling staff after the shooting.

The district hired 15 additional counselors for about $975,000, said Paul McLarty, Clear Creek school district’s deputy superintendent of business and support services.

Clear Creek’s 15 additional counselors, who joined several already employed, work differently than traditional case counselors by only focusing on the social and emotional needs of students, Uranga said.

“We want to dispel the image of a counselor who sits in an office and waits for work,” she said. “I want the community to understand that our counselors are out there providing guidance lessons and giving pieces on prevention, talking about suicide prevention.”

The district also has built a system for students and parents to make anonymous reports about other students who might need help or about potential threats, said Elaina Polsen, spokeswoman for the district.

Many students have used the program since it was implemented, Polsen said.

“Some reports have been sweet and innocent and others have been kids doing the right thing and alerting adults of something that needs to be addressed,” Polsen said.

Other districts seem to be following a similar pattern.

“The majority of our safety committee felt like if we were going to move the needle, it was going to be on the social and emotional side of things,” said Diane Myers, the assistant superintendent of secondary curriculum and instruction at Friendswood Independent School District.

“There’s less of a tendency to come and hurt and damage a place you care about and that they knew cared about them.”

Counselors instituted a measure at the district’s junior high school called Mustang Impact, in which students are divided into different groups with teachers and spend 40 minutes each week building relationships, Myers said.

Santa Fe, meanwhile, spent about $425,000 hiring four additional counselors trained in trauma and grief therapy, in addition to suicide, drug abuse and alcohol abuse prevention, Hanssard said.

Much of the additional staff and training programs have been funded with state grants, Hanssard said.

“Through the National Project Serve Grant, the district has employed a victims’ advocate counselor to assist families who have been most impacted by the tragedy,” Hanssard said.

Galveston Independent School District, meanwhile, is partnering with several island groups to provide mental health and relationship help to students, said Cherie Spencer, a social and emotional learning coordinator for the district.

One of those groups is the Family Service Center.

“Our goal is to prevent and treat mental health issues and connect the school community,” said Julie Purser, executive director of the Family Service Center.

The Family Service Center is one of several island groups, including the University of Texas Medical Branch and the Teen Health Center, working with the district through a partnership called Causeway Galveston, officials said.

Causeway Galveston began before the shooting, but thanks to extra grant funding, all of the groups involved have increased staffing for the program, officials said.

Other districts agreed that many of the measures they implemented predate the shooting.

“Student support counselors are not new, we’ve just added 15 more,” Polsen said. “In today’s day and age, kids are just coming with a heavier load and this will help us with small group and individual counseling. It’s long been a practice, we just felt we needed to expand and increase the number of professionals.”

Student mental health has long been an area needing more staff, officials said.

And districts aren’t all finished.

Texas Independent School District officials are considering expanding mental health services via a company called Resolve It, which already helps provide counseling to student victims of violence, said Melissa Tortorici, the district’s spokeswoman.

Dickinson officials Saturday held a training program for the entire community to learn more about safety and mental health, said Tammy Dowdy, spokeswoman for the district.

Matt deGrood: 409-683-5230; matt.degrood@galvnews.com

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