DARIEN — Superintendent Alan Addley has recommended that the school district hire a director of mental health “as quickly as we possibly can” to coordinate the district’s efforts toward a mental health curriculum for students and training for staff members.
According to the job description, the director of mental health would be responsible for implementing social-emotional learning programs for all children in the district, beginning in Kindergarten and going through high school. The coordinator would also oversee screening to help identify students struggling with mental health and create and monitor more intensive social-emotional “interventions.”
Addley said at a board of education meeting on Tuesday that other districts, including New Canaan, Wilton and Westport, had had similar positions for years.
But Addley acknowledged that in Darien this position would present particular challenges. Last spring, the high school lost three of its students within two months — two from suicide.
“This is a difficult position, by any stretch of the imagination, not just because of what happened recently, but also for that reason. I think that it really requires an administrative perspective … in order to proactively and effectively oversee the program,” said Addley.
But some board members said they were concerned about creating more administrative positions rather than bringing in people to work directly with the students.
“I’m not ready, really, to get behind this yet until we look at what the students need,” said Board Member Tara Wurm. “I feel that the general education pool of students is large and currently our psychologists, counselors are overtaxed and there’s really nowhere for these students to go.”
Board Chair Dave Dineen asked whether the position would be able to look at the schedules of the counselors and psychologists in the district to make sure that their schedules weren’t overloaded.
“Do we really have the right infrastructure in place for what the students may need? Because I’m not sure we’re fully there yet with understanding what they may need,” said Dineen. “We want to make sure that we’ve got the right psychologists, social workers and those folks in place.”
Addley said that the director of mental health wouldn’t be responsible for overseeing the mental health staff in the district, but that the role could overlap with that, given that the director would be responsible for any mental health program the district decided to adopt.
Christopher Tranberg, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for grades K-12, said the position was a way of making sure that mental health supports were integrated both throughout a student’s education — from kindergarten all the way through high school — and both inside and outside of classrooms. He said the coordinator would be creating a mental health curriculum and providing professional development.
Shirley Klein, assistant superintendent for special education and student services, said that having a director of mental health was really about creating a specific culture in the district through a “continuum of teaching and learning.”
“When you look at bringing it all together, it becomes a first language. All children are taught a first language of mental health practices. Of knowing there is no longer a stigma to that. Of what resources to go to. So it’s not the number of resources you have, I think it’s the coordination of efforts,” she said. “And I believe having this one person to coordinate all those efforts … will make a direct difference to students and families.”
Board member Julie Best said that having the position could help the district make sure that its students were not only strong academically, but that they were building what she called “softer qualities” like resilience and self-awareness.
“We talk a lot about measures of success and how we define success and how that needs to evolve a little bit,” she said. “It might be a helpful tool to make sure that … we’re seating all of these qualities in our students, the resilience and the other softer qualities … and also as a preventative tool to make sure developing kids who are strong and healthy and aware of themselves as they can be.”
Addley said the position would fill some of the requirements created in a children’s mental health bill passed in the state legislature last spring. The bill requires school districts to appoint a family care coordinator — a person who acts as a liaison between parents and mental health providers. The director of mental health would also be responsible for working with coaches to create a plan for mental health for student athletes, another requirement from the legislation.
Board member Tara Ochman said she was concerned that the position wouldn’t address the specific challenges that Darien was facing.
“The crisis we saw ourselves in last spring — this is not an answer to that. This is an answer to the requirements that we have by law now,” she said.
But Addley replied that if someone in the district was actively looking for best practices and trainings on suicide prevention, that person could bring them forward before the district was in crisis, rather than simply reacting.
District administrators said the director would also be acting as a liaison to community groups and professional agencies like the Yale Child Study Center that the district has been working with, as well as the town’s Human Services department. Dineen asked if the director could also coordinate with town health department.
Addley advised that the board transfer funds within the budget to pay for the new position, which he said would have to be negotiated through the administrator’s union. He said that with the board’s approval, he anticipated being able to go out to hire for the position in September.
The board asked Addley to revise the job description to better clarify the position.
Addley said that as the school year begins, the district will continue to work with outside agencies like Silver Hill Hospital, Darian Human Resources and the Child and Family Center. He said the district had given suicide prevention training to staff members and was planning to host focus groups with students. The district is also looking at screening students on social-emotional learning and will be undergoing further training through the Hub on dealing with the aftermath of a suicide.