Mental health issues and suspension rates were discussed at a recent Pacifica School District board meeting.

“As we return to school from the pandemic, we have prioritized mental health support,” wrote PSD Superintendent Heather Olsen in an email to the Tribune. “We have a school counselor for every school and are implementing the Caring School Communities as a social emotional learning curriculum.

“These are trying times for students, families and staff and we want to provide as much support as possible,” she wrote.

The agenda item was presented by John Bartfield, director of special education and student services on Nov. 2. 

A Caring School Communities curriculum is a comprehensive, research-based social and emotional learning program that builds schoolwide community, develops students’ social skills and enables a transformational stance on discipline. The idea is to motivate students to contribute productively to a community. The concept promotes positive behavior by teaching responsibility, empathy and cooperation.

There have been nine suspensions in the school year. All district schools prioritize alternatives to suspension, including restorative conversations and conflict resolution, school/community service, “words matter” posters after vulgar language, parent, student and principal conferences, behavior contracts, counseling and detention.

Restorative practices include a multifaceted approach that emphasizes the development of healthy relationships, social emotional skills and empathy among students. Restorative justice circles respond to behavioral difficulties and 14 PSD staff members are currently attending restorative practices training. Restorative practices include maintaining a positive, supportive school climate and establishing community, empathy and overall healthy relationships. 

Social emotional needs have been heightened due to COVID-19. There’s been an increase in trauma and adverse childhood experiences that impact mental health, school officials say. Not being in a school setting had affected students behavior, especially kindergarten through second grade, according to the district.

PSD has school counselors, school psychologists, mental health counselors and a behavior team to address these issues. School counselors are at every school. Youth Service Bureau counselors are at Vallemar, Ocean Shore and Cabrillo elementary schools as well as Ingrid B. Lacy Middle School. Social work interns are at IBL and Sunset Ridge Elementary School.

Social emotional learning is the process through which young people learn healthy identities and to manage their emotions. It also leads to responsible behavior and empathy for others.

Seventy-five percent to 90 percent of students are considered Tier 1. For them, interventions are aimed at prevention, teaching positive behaviors, and promoting social and emotional development.

Most of the remainder are Tier 2 at-risk students. For them, interventions are provided by a social emotional wellness team. It provides personalized, targeted, short- term counseling support or behavior support plans.

Tier 3 are considered high-risk students, up to 5 percent of students. Tier 3 interventions give intensive specialized services by a mental health counselor or behaviorist.

Jane Northrop has covered Pacifica for the Pacifica Tribune since 1996. She has won first place John Swett Awards from the California Teachers Association for her coverage of education.

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