Norfolk Public Schools administration building

Educators and school administrators now have established pathways to providing more mental health and behavioral support in the Norfolk school district.

At Monday night’s regular monthly Norfolk school board meeting, members passed a comprehensive mental health/behavior plan that draws on community partnerships as well as a framework developed by the Nebraska Department of Education.

The plan includes contracts with Educational Service Unit 8 as well as Oasis Counseling International and Midtown Health Center, which are mental health counseling entities in Norfolk.

The plan will establish licensed mental health practitioners across the district in the following ways:

— Preschool: The Norfolk Family Coalition has a grant to purchase the needed equipment to host what’s known as Parent-Child Interaction Therapy with Midtown providing these services to students. The district will provide the space and costs are completely covered through the grant.

— Elementary: Midtown Health will provide the district with a grant-funded licensed mental health practitioner to serve students at no cost to the district, which will provide the space.

— Middle school and junior high: Oasis Counseling will provide a licensed mental health practitioner at no cost to the district. Services will be billed to families’ insurance plans or covered by community resources.

— Senior high: The district will contract with ESU 8 for a licensed mental health practitioner, which will cost $86,000 yearly for salary and benefits. This individual will also coordinate and supervise services across the district.

Dr. Jami Jo Thompson, superintendent of schools, said the cost of hiring a mental health practitioner specifically for the district should be covered in state aid. The district’s certification for state aid for the 2019-20 school year, which was given a few weeks ago, will provide about $2 million more in state aid, or $11,562,838. Total funding is yet to be determined by property valuation for next school year.

After the plan is put in place for 2019-20, Thompson anticipates that the district would hire a behavioral specialist and possibly more licensed mental health practitioners. But, she said, the plan is a strong starting point in meeting district needs.

“This is a vital step to ensuring a safe and positive learning environment for our students and staff, and another example of the strong relationships and partnerships we have throughout the Norfolk community,” Thompson said during Monday’s meeting.

Addressing mental health and behavioral issues has been an administrator and educator concern for years. Thompson said they have discussed the possibility of partnering with community entities for a few years now, but only recently have things started to move forward.

Mental health and behavioral issues in the district have been addressed by teachers, administrators and school counselors — many of whom already have a full plate, Thompson said. If there were more significant needs they had to refer students on to outside agencies and local counseling services.

District educators have consistently listed providing more mental health support as a high priority in staff surveys and feedback sessions. And in this year’s exit surveys, of the 18 respondents one person said they were dissatisfied with the position and noted that behavioral issues played a role in their response.

In the meeting, Thompson said mental health and behavioral concerns have increased in the past few years.

“We have seen a drastic increase in mental health issues and behavior concerns across the state and nation,” she said. “Norfolk Public Schools is no exception.”

Throughout Nebraska legislative sessions over the past few years, district administrators have waited to see if any funding to address these issues would become available — to no avail so far.

“Unfortunately, our senators have not been able to agree on the best course of action, leaving school districts to address this issue on their own,” Thompson said.

Now that the plan has been approved, the next step is to reach out to the community partners so they can move forward with grant application processes. She said Midtown and Norfolk Family Coalition were confident in their abilities to be awarded the needed grants.

District administrators are also working on adapting the Nebraska Department of Education’s systems to its schools. This involves developing a streamlined district-wide referral system based on the statewide Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, and providing documentation for staff and parents.

Some district principals, teachers and counselors have already received initial training on the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. On Monday, a Nebraska Department of Education representative provided training to help them tailor the system to the district.

Thompson said many were glad to have another source of support to address mental health in the district.

“They were very excited about the possibility to have this resource available to them as they work with our students who have needs and who may be struggling with their behavior,” she said. “It sort of takes one thing off their plate a little bit and gives them an additional source of support.”

Board members unanimously supported the plan, and Tammy Day said it was a smart use of community resources to address an overarching, multi-faceted issue.

“I love the partnership with other organizations,” Day said. “Because we are very conservative and mindful with resources and … I like the idea of seeing how as a community we can address issues that come up around safety and security and teacher retention and all kinds of things.”