DARIEN – On Tuesday, the Board of Education warmed to the idea of creating a position for a Director of Mental Health, after a lengthy debate over whether a new administrative hire would improve student mental health outcomes.
The idea was originally suggested last month by Superintendent Alan Addley. But at the time, board members questioned whether the proposal was more an attempt to meet new legislative requirements than to actually address the town’s mental health challenges. They asked Addley to return with a revised proposal clarifying the position’s job description.
At last night’s meeting, Addley explained to the board that a new director of mental health would fulfill a new state requirement for a family care coordinator, while also “liaising” with outside experts and ensuring the delivery of the district’s wellness curriculum for students.
The director would also work on the district level with school psychologists and counselors, and address mental health matters including suicide prevention, stress and substance abuse.
At the start of the discussion, board members Tara Ochman, John Sini Jr. and Tara Wurm all questioned whether the district was adequately staffed with psychologists before adding a new position, especially considering the recent loss of three students last spring.
Ochman said that the district may need a role like a mental health director, but she questioned whether the position was a priority given that the district’s school psychologists are already overworked.
“Our psychologists are literally the boots on the ground on this,” Ochman said. “And if kids want to get in to see a psychologist right now, or if they want to get in to talk to someone, is there someone they can talk to?”
Shirley Klein, assistant superintendent for special education and student services, said that school psychologists are always overworked, but that individual Darien public schools have the proper staffing of psychologists and counselors. She said that a Director of Mental Health would help psychologists at their jobs, by coordinating across the district and creating a uniform curriculum.
Board Chair David Dineen and board members David Brown and Dennis Maroney asked how they could judge whether the students need a mental health director – they asked if quantitative data to support the idea could be produced through surveys, focus groups or student comments.
“I’m not sure, necessarily, if having this extra person would provide that much of a new opportunity for a student to go and talk to someone,” student representative John Raskopf said. “Because if they don’t feel comfortable with, you know, one administrative person, then I’m not sure why they would, as of right now, feel more comfortable with someone else.”
Scott McCarthy, program director of special education and student services, said the success of the position could be measured by the “deliverables,” – a screening process to understand how students feel, evaluate the results and then design interventions to address them.
Vice Chair Jill McCammon and Ochman said that she felt more comfortable and versed on the position’s expectations after the meeting. Member Julie Best said she was already on board, but appreciated the clarity.
“We usually look at how people are performing versus how they’re feeling,” Best said. “So, it’s gonna be tricky to understand how this works. But obviously, I think we all recognize that there’s huge value and importance in that.”
The board decided to put the position up for approval at the next meeting. If accepted, it will be brought to the Board of Education Finance Committee and added to the 2023-24 budget.