STURGIS — Dealing with mental health issues daily is taking educators away from their primary focus of providing a quality education to students, say Meade School District administrators.
The administrators had a chance to share their concerns with area legislators and members of the Meade School Board during the annual Legislative Dinner & Roundtable Discussion Monday at the Sturgis Williams Middle School library.
Legislators on hand included District 29 House members Rep. Thomas Brunner, R-Nisland, and Rep. Kirk Chaffee, R-Whitewood, along with District 31 Rep. Dayle Hammock, R-Spearfish.
Meade School District Superintendent Jeff Simmons told the legislators that the responsibility has fallen upon schools to be the mental health provider, the parent and the overseer of all social ills.
“Our schools do a very good job of sheltering and isolating these situations from the mainstream students, but it is happening,” Simmons said. “There are a tremendous amount of resources going to these students, but we are ill equipped to handle what comes through our door every day.”
Piedmont Valley Elementary School Principal Ethan Dschaak told legislators that student mental health issues have and continue to be a concern not only at Piedmont, but districtwide.
He said private mental health facilities such as Canyon Hills in Spearfish and others often do not have room for all who need placement, which is a sad commentary on society, he said.
“That is why I think it is important to have the resources to try to solve the problem within the schools,” he said.
The American School Counselor Association suggests that the appropriate student/counselor ratio should be 1 to 250.
“To put that into perspective, we have 524 students at Piedmont Valley and we have one counselor,” he said. “I know why we have one counselor. It is a budgetary issue. You can’t pay for personnel or resources if you don’t have the money to do it.”
He told the legislators that he and the district are grateful for efforts to get more state money for education such as the infusion of funds for teacher pay increases in 2017.
“Whether there is money in the general fund, or grant money made available, it really truly is a need and I don’t think we are going to solve it by finding more seats in the Canyon Hills type of facilities,” he said. The mental health issue has to be dealt with in the schools, Dschaak said.
“The reality is that schools are being asked to solve a lot of society’s ills, more so than ever before,” he said. “I don’t always feel very good about that because our role should be more academic. But, if we are not going to solve it, I’m not sure who will.”
Dschaak said even though education gets the largest portion of the state budget pie, he is not sure that is enough for schools to deal with the current mental health issues.
Sturgis Elementary School Principal Chantal Ligtenberg concurred saying she and her staff are unable to fulfill the academic obligations they have for students when mental health issue overshadow instruction.
Meade School District Director of Special Services Chrissy Peterson said that what is occurring in Meade Schools is indicative of society as a whole.
Some students come to school with incontinence issues, not knowing their alphabet and are what Peterson describes as mentally unstable. And, as they grow older, they become a threat to themselves and others in their school buildings.
“I used to say that what we need is for these parents to just straighten up and raise these kids. I’ve come full circle, and I now realize these parents are parenting like they have been parented,” she said.
Peterson said she needs more counselors and more family resources to address the mental health issues.
Simmons said he hoped that the legislators could find some additional funds to address the mental health issues schools face.
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