One year into mental health plan, Burbank school officials gauge progress

Students’ mental health, anxiety — and the drugs they take to cope — were up for discussion during a Burbank school board study session Thursday, nearly one year after the board established a mental health and wellness plan.

Since the plan was approved last April, Burbank officials have opened a mental health and wellness office at John Burroughs High School, trained teachers in suicide prevention and hired John Costanzo to serve as a mental health and wellness coordinator to oversee districtwide efforts.

This week, officials crossed another item off the list with the debut of the mental health and wellness center at Burroughs High, a space modeled after Burbank High’s center, which opened in early 2016.

“We’re on the right path,” said Burbank Unified Supt. Matt Hill. “We’re going to keep building momentum.”

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Costanzo said implementing the plan would not have been possible without partnering with Family Services Agency, the Burbank nonprofit that provides counselors who meet with students in Burbank schools.

The nonprofit is why as many as 1,000 students have been served at Burbank High’s wellness center since it opened, he said.

“If we did not have a partnership with [Family Services Agency], we would be lucky to be servicing 100 students by the end of the school year,” Costanzo said. “We’ve served over 1,000. The model is, you partner with a nonprofit. It’s the only way you get that kind of work done.”

The agency’s counselors are also helping Burbank Unified track data, including drug use and suicidal thoughts.

Since school began in August, 61 students have been hospitalized because they were considered a threat to themselves or others, or demonstrated or shared suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Those incidents peaked in September, with 17 occurrences, and rose again in February, with 14.

At local middle schools, one student was caught with marijuana and another with Prozac.

There were nearly a dozen incidents of high school students caught with marijuana, followed by seven who were found to possess tobacco. A few more students were caught with Xanax.

“If you talk to a student who’s been caught with Xanax on campus, they say things like, ‘I’m stressed.’ They’re not necessarily taking it to become intoxicated,” Costanzo said.

Many more students are likely using drugs; when they’ve responded to surveys asking whether they’ve seen drug use on campus, “the numbers are in the hundreds,” Costanzo said.

When addressing the stress students face, Diana Abasta, president of the Burbank Teachers Assn., said she wondered how their anxiety and depression may be a result of sleep deprivation.

“I really feel that this is the No. 1 thing,” Abasta said. “Our kids are being stretched in so many different ways.”

Board member Steve Ferguson asked if students should be labeled ‘at-risk’ if they are involved in activities outside of school, in addition to carrying a demanding course load.

"If you’re taking on certain courses or a job … there has to be a moment — not to limit students and what they can take — but a moment where teachers and parents can come together, along with counseling, to label them for what they are, which is ‘at risk,’” Ferguson said.

Beyond tracking data that officials want to compare year-to-year, they’re also working to reinforce students’ positive behavior as part of what’s called “Positive Intervention Behavior and Support.”

The goal is to make students’ appropriate behavior the norm. Some positive behaviors include students throwing paper towels away in the restroom or looking out for others in school parking lots.

“We teach the kids academics. If they join a sport, we teach them how to participate. If they get on stage, we teach them how to perform. But we’re not really teaching them how to behave, for the most part, with consistent lessons and expectations that are reinforced every day,” Costanzo said. “The majority of our students don’t need this. They’re already doing it. But we establish a schoolwide system to capture that other 20%, and we make it the norm for everybody.”

Training for employees on the intervention program began this school year at the high schools, and will continue during the next two school years at the middle and elementary schools.

kelly.corrigan@latimes.com

Twitter: @kellymcorrigan

Copyright © 2017, Burbank Leader

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