When there is a student tragedy at a public school in Lancaster or Lebanon counties, a “flight team” is usually called to deploy to the school to provide support and guidance to students. The size of the flight team varies depending on the size of the school.
The team comes from a pool of approximately 160 professionals dispersed in the school districts of neighboring counties, made up of school psychologists, social workers or counselors.
“I’m sending a notification to those 160 people,” said Susan Billy, behavioral health support services manager for IU13. “I ask them to tell me if they are available for deployment. Everything works through me.
The flight team usually stays at the school for one to three days, as needed.
“The role of these flight team members is to provide support and stabilization to their students so that we can try to get their environment back to as normal functioning as possible,” Billy said.
“There is usually a room set up at school. Libraries are often used. They tend to be quiet and don’t get much traffic. Or maybe an empty classroom. Just a space where there is not much traffic. The students will enter. We usually have different things available. There could be paper and markers. Sometimes, depending on the age of the students, there may be a corner of movement. Because children don’t necessarily know how to deal with death and grief. …Or maybe they’ll make cards, and the school can share those cards with the family. Or a paper chain sharing student memories.
Billy’s latest coordination of a flight team came for Taylor Middle School in the Columbia School District following the death of seventh grader Robyn Bittenbender this fall.
This followed two flight team deployments elsewhere over the summer.
In other words, Billy said, it’s fair to say that no school is immune to student tragedy.
A flight team coordinated by IU13 from Chester County arrived in Octorara last January after a 15-year-old student took his own life.
“In this case, we worked with a crisis team on how we will communicate with students,” said Cale Hilbolt, director of student services at Octorara.
“In the upper grades, each head teacher basically read a prepared statement to the kids,” Hilbolt recalls. “It gives students the opportunity to hear it if they haven’t heard it and have a discussion on the spot. …an opportunity for kids to bond and have some of that character education through tragedy. …And we’ve asked our staff to be very sensitive to the needs and behaviors of students, especially this child’s peer group. We have made sure to have advisors available at all times.
Meet the 4-legged friends helping Lancaster County students overcome their mental health challenges
At the state level
Additionally, several laws have been put in place in Pennsylvania in recent years to ensure both school safety and student mental health.
Law 71 of 2014 requires schools to adopt age-appropriate suicide awareness education for students.
Among the many elements of Law 44 of 2018 was the creation of the Safe2Say program as a way to prevent school shootings and violence, while also responding to calls on bullying, self-harm and mental health.
Law 18 of 2019 established requirements for schools to recognize and support the impact of trauma on students, as well as training staff in trauma-informed approaches.
Law 55 of 2022 amended Law 44 to require two hours of training annually for staff on the topics of Behavioral Health Awareness, Bullying Awareness, Situational Awareness, Substance Abuse Awareness , suicide awareness and trauma-informed approaches.
Aid in the era of the pandemic
Then there are the more basic approaches, such as the pandemic-era federal aid that made school meals available free of charge to all students in public schools.
“Hungry kids don’t do well in school,” Octorara Superintendent Michele Orner said. “Sometimes the simplest thing, like making breakfast free and having your cafeteria staff posted at the door and delivering it to the kids first thing in the day, goes a long way.”
About 20% of Octorara students received free breakfast before the pandemic began. The level of participation rose to almost 60% at the end of the last academic year, when federal assistance to provide free meals also ended. That’s why Orner and his staff had to scramble to figure out how Octorara could continue to cover the rising cost of free meals as more students relied on them.
“I wanted our families to have a cutback plan because the inflation is real and the food insecurity in this community is real,” Orner said. “The other thing is that the most important meal of the day is breakfast.”
The problem was averted when Governor Tom Wolf on September 22 announced his $21.5 million plan to provide free, universal school breakfasts to 1.7 million Commonwealth students this school year.
Meanwhile, Octorara, a school district of 2,000 students, about 20% of whom come from Lancaster County and the remaining 80% from Chester County, also used pandemic-era aid to add two social workers to full-time and two full-time mental health services. specialists.
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