State law requires Pennsylvania school districts to provide student assistance programs at the middle and high school levels.
These programs have proven to be an effective tool for school officials to remove barriers to learning by identifying issues involving students’ mental health and their use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco.
The process begins with a referral to the student assistance team for the building by either the student or someone working on his/her behalf, be it a teacher, administrator, staff person, classmate, friend, parent or family member. Referrals can be made anonymously.
A case manager is then assigned from among the team members to research the basis for the referral, said Doris Baboian, director of student services for Cumberland Valley School District. The research could involve talking to the referral source if known, along with sending out a checklist to get a read from the teachers who instruct the student.
The idea is to get teachers to provide input on what they are seeing in the student’s behavior, coursework and interactions. “The checklists are gathered to see how this is teasing out and where should we go with it,” Baboian said.
Student assistance teams typically consist of specially trained teachers and counselors, along with a school nurse and building level administrator, said Johanna Jones, a counselor at Carlisle High School. Local teams also include representatives from the Cumberland-Perry Drug and Alcohol Commission and Teenline of Geisinger Holy Spirit Hospital.
“The team will investigate all they can find out about the student,” Jones said. “What’s going on with their grades? Somebody knows something about this kid. The team will discuss it.”
A lot of times the case manager will talk to the student directly, said JoAnn Coslett, a psychologist at Cumberland Valley High School. After all, it’s not fair to the student to have an investigation conducted without their knowledge or input.
Often the next step is to seek permission from a parent or guardian to have a formal screening or assessment done by an outside provider or agency that can suggest a course of action.
In about 75 percent of cases, Carlisle Area School District families are receptive to the team recommendation that more work be done to investigate whatever issue is affecting the student, Jones said. Teenline has been able to work with families concerned about the ability of their insurance to cover a recommendation of counseling.
Jones said single moms tend to be more accepting of the need for help while single dads tend to be more resistant. She believes this may be because the father is in denial of his own issues or worried about what the next step may reveal.
Affluent families also tend to be less accepting of help, Jones said. They are either convinced there can’t be a problem with their child or that the next step could uncover something embarrassing to the family.
Some parents believe their child should brush it off or have the gumption to muddle through. On the opposite extreme are those helicopter parents who go overboard by misinterpreting typical teenage behavior, Jones said.
“My kid has slept all day. I’m worried about them,” is one example. But this type of weekend behavior is fairly typical after the teenager has a very busy week. If they have been sleeping in three weekends in a row would be more of a concern.
There can also be parental frustration if the teenager acts depressed. The parent seeking answers may ask their child directly what is wrong with them, but the child may not know how to express what is going on in their life, Jones said.
While Student Assistance Programs are mandatory at the secondary school level, their use is optional at the elementary school level. The 2018-19 school year marks the second year Cumberland Valley has Student Assistance Programs serving the lower grades, Babiaon said. There is a program team at every building that operates slightly differently depending on the size of enrollment.
Cumberland Valley High School has one team for each grade that typically meets at least once during each six-day cycle to review new referrals and ongoing cases. Each middle school has one team for the whole building.