In the months since students returned to in-person learning, their social and emotional well-being has been an issue of concern in District public and public charter schools, so much so that District officials recently dedicated millions of dollars to the expansion of in-school behavioral health services. 

Throughout the school year, in-school clinicians across the District have been working in conjunction with counselors and other officials to address pandemic-induced mental trauma. Through various levels of support, they push into classrooms, disseminate vital information and conduct one-on-one and group sessions to help students address underlying issues. 

At the Congress Heights and Capitol Hill campuses of Center City Public Charter School, Jasmine Tingling-Clemmons continues to collaborate with school counselors and implement grade-specific programming focused on conflict resolution. This follows sessions held last summer to address the way teachers were affected by the pandemic.

For elementary students, Tingling-Clemmons often uses puppets to help young people verbalize feelings they can’t quite articulate. As students get older, she engages them in conversation about various topics. Students referred to her by staff members often received the same level of attention to make up for what they have been denied during the pandemic. 

“Students are looking for validation,” said Tingling-Clemmons, a clinical social worker who works for D.C. Department of Behavioral Health [DBH]. 

“It can be very lonely going through something [and] you not knowing how to explain it. The middle schoolers are making decisions [about going to high school] and they’re relieved when a clinician acknowledges that,” she said.

D.C. Announces Investments in In-School Mental Health Services 

Over the last few years, the District has invested $30 million to provide every public school with at least one mental health clinician. The influx of funds came in the midst of student activists, including those representing Black Swan Academy, pressing D.C. council members for the expansion of in-school mental health services. 

Oftentimes, in-school clinicians address social and emotional issues through classroom interventions, group sessions and, if needed, support that’s specifically tailored to individual students and their families.   

Even though he acknowledged the presence of clinicians within his school, a student featured in a previous Informer story lamented not being able to access mental health services. In responding to that concern, DBH Director Dr. Barbara J. Bazron insisted that students can see clinicians in their building at any time. She later cited community-based organizations and child service agencies that students can contact outside of school. 

On Feb. 7, Bazron joined D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), DC Public Schools Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee and DC Public Charter School Board Executive Director Dr. Michelle J. Walker-Davis at Columbia Heights Educational Campus [CHEC] in Northwest to reveal increases in next year’s public education budget. In that $200 million increase, the public and public charter sectors will split a $36 million Recovery Fund to bolster academic and socio-emotional programming. 

Such funds would augment the work of Austin Quinn who, for the last several months, has coordinated programming at  McKinley Technology Middle School and McKinley Technology High School to address suicidal ideation. 

Since the summertime, Quinn, a DBH clinical social worker, has been in discussions with administrators about what to anticipate once students return to campus. In speaking with young people, Quinn said he recognized that many continue to grapple with grief and loss, whether it’s related to the pandemic or community violence. 

That’s why, in his role,  Quinn has attempted to make suicide prevention an all-hands-on-deck activity. 

“We’re pushing in the middle and high school classrooms to give that preventative information [about] the signs of suicide in friends and peers. Our clinical staff can be observant as much as we can [but] it’s helpful to have other eyes,” said Quinn who’s currently in his eighth year at the McKinley Tech campus.

“We talk about the signs of depression that should concern you [and how] to get services,” Quinn said. “We show that there’s support and that it’s helpful. It’s a big problem for sixth and seventh graders, but there are resources.” 

Clinicians Extol School Support as They Build Community 

Among people of various ages, the pandemic increased feelings of withdrawal and isolation, loss of focus, mental fuzziness and anxiety about the future. Bazron cited an increase in marijuana use among young people during the pandemic, calling it a sign of stress. 

The agency has since taken various opportunities, including at a Metropolitan Police Department youth summit last year, to educate young people about the dangers of substance abuse. 

At CHEC, DBH clinical social worker Madelyn Keefe has a caseload of at least 20 students and an even longer waitlist. She collaborates with 14 mental health professionals from nearby Mary’s Center and Latin American Youth Center to ensure that students receive support in a manner that doesn’t disrupt their school day. 

Doing so, Keefe said, requires establishing rapport with teachers and administrators, most of whom she said has been supportive. Keefe hosts weekly and biweekly group sessions where, for 40 minutes at a time, participants gather and learn how to process grief and loss. 

Keefe uses what she described as trauma-informed, evidence-based curricula to guide her strategies in helping students navigate their feelings. 

“A lot of my students present with anxiety, depressive disorders and an array of things related to trauma and grief,” Keefe said. 

“We’re working on communication skills with family, peers and teachers [including] effective communication and using self-care strategies to manage our feelings as they arise,” she said. “I feel lucky to work with high schoolers. We do work around thinking and the power and malleability of our brains to adapt and address problems.”

Word in Black is a collaboration of 10 of the nation’s leading Black publishers that frames the narrative and fosters solutions for racial inequities in America.

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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