Safe Schools/Healthy Students Needs Local Funding To Continue After Grant Expires

Local educators and mental health officials are working to find local support for a program that has helped scores of students.

The Safe Schools/Healthy Students initiative is about to see the grant that funded it expire. Officials are hoping to secure an extension of the grant based on a slow rollout, but barring that, without a new backer, the programs could die out.

The initiative has been the recipient of grants totaling $600,500 a year since 2013 to combat school violence through mental health care and lessons on proper behavior in Williams County. The program began nationally in 1999 in the wake of the mass shooting at Columbine High School.

Six of the seven Williams County school districts are participating. Edgerton has opted out because its guidance counselors have been able to handle the situation, Project Director Ron Rittichier said.

Rittichier is based out the Northwest Ohio Education Service Center and coordinates the program.

Most of the first two years of the grant program dealt with planning. Rittichier did not come on board until the third year. The program got to the county through the work of a group called LINK, which consisted of Judge Bird, local school officials and mental health representatives.

Judge Bird contended something needed to be done to address mental health of students because by the time those young people and their families got to his court, it was too late, Rittichier said. The effort was to stave off that result and do some early prevention so that would not be the case, he said.

The local effort came up with a lot of ideas that meshed well with Safe Schools. The main push was on mental health care through promoting initiatives for preschool students, school-based mental health activities and engaging families.

The most far-reaching program is the Care Coordinators who provide case management of students they see. Care Coordinators serve as advocates who assist families get the mental health services they need.

There are three coordinators, hired through the grant, and they service six of the seven schools in Williams County. The coordinators spend a half day all week at two schools, Rittichier said.

Early on the program suffered from connecting students to the care providers. Taking a student out of school and sending them to Toledo was impractical because at a minimum it would mean losing a half-day of class.

The solution was getting the providers to come to Williams County and handling the appointments in school, Rittichier said.

“Usually it’s a half-hour appointment compared to missing a half a day,” Rittichier said. “Having the appointments conducted in school is beneficial since that’s where the students spend most of their time.”

The program has been able to connect with the Community Hospital of Williams County. They have placed a therapist in three of the schools (Edon, Montpelier and West Unity). The idea is to build the caseload and add another therapist.

Other programs include the PAX Behavior Game, which is for elementary school students. The program teaches children how to behave in school through self-regulation.

“It doesn’t take anything for granted on a what a child may know about how to behave in school,” Rittichier said. “It has really changed a lot of school environments where it’s been implemented.”

A cousin of PAX is Positive Behavior Intervention Support and is designed for middle and high school students. This involves the parents and school officials identifying three tenets or beliefs of what is proper behavior and then focusing their instruction around those tenets.

Another tool is Mental Health First Aid. Around 100 teachers and community members have been trained what to do when they see problems or issues arise.

There is also a reference guide available that lists many of the services available in Williams County. It is available in hardcopy and online on local agencies’ websites.

But with all that, the problem comes down to sustainable funding, Rittichier said. The need is great as the numbers show:
– 303 students have been served by Care Coordinators in Williams County
– 273 have been referred for a mental health assessment and/or a physician’s exam.
– 146 students have received mental health care in their communities.
– 47 students have trained as peer mediators.
– There has been a 74 percent reduction in disruptive behaviors in classrooms using the PAX Good Behavior Game.

One satisfied superintendent is Larry Long from Hilltop.

“We are very pleased and proud with what has been able to be accomplished with the Safe Schools Healthy Students program,” Long said.

“It has been so beneficial and worthwhile for our students, our staff, our parents and the entire community.”

Long is gave glowing reviews of Rittichier and others in the program. The improvements made at the K-12 school has been noticeable and serve the community’s needs, he said.

“All (SS/HS staff) have made a tremendous impact on the direction we are heading with all of this,” Long said. “We are reaching the students and families that need to be reached and I believe in turn, we have parents and families coming in to meet with our people to seek help and direction.

“I know I can speak for our staff – they are so pleased and relieved to have the personnel in place like this that they can go to and know that issues and concerns expressed will be addressed for the betterment of the student but all the other outlying factors.”

Long’s personal wish is all the naysayers of public education would come and see first-hand all the good that is being done in public schools as well as with programs of this nature.

“Not just here at Hilltop but within the entire county,” Long said. “I wish our legislative people and ODE people would check it all out to see what the schools of Williams County have accomplished.

“Every district is similar yet every district is different and that is probably what I like seeing the most is that we are dealing with a specific situation and those all vary but they also most generally end up with good results.”

But every silver lining covers up a dark cloud.

“Now we are trying to secure funding,” Rittichier said.

One blessing has been the CHWC has offered its mental health services for free, Rittichier said. Funding the Care Coordinators is top goal, he said. The program costs $400,000 a year and that pays for three coordinators, a supervisor, management and data support. The rest supports PAX.

“We are working to keep (them) around,” Rittichier said. “We have found them to be an asset to the school and families.”

The whole SS/HS program is evidence-based and the numbers support a continuance of the Care Coordinators, Rittchier said.

“We are trying to get more of the word out,” Ritticher said. “I am pretty sure we are going to find a way; I am tired of chasing grants.”

When he came on 2015, his interest was there had been a huge emphasis on sustainability. To aid in the effort the state has provided a person who has experience in transitioning a grant program into one that can stand on its own, Rittichier said.

“We are going to try to keep the care coordinators but it gets tricky when Edon is hiring one for their school that’s going to leave hole,” Rittichier said.

Bryan and Hilltop schools are asking for their own coordinators as well, he said.

James Pruitt may be reached at publisher@thevillagereporter.com

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