The year was 2017, and Kirsten Johnson, the first director of social work services in Pennsylvania’s Dover Area School District (DASD), remembers her job interview. The District is located southeast of Harrisburg, the state capital, and educates over 3,600 students in grades K-12. It never had a social worker on staff. Kirsten asked what were their expectations for the position and what were the latest student needs assessments?
“I remembered the interview panel looking around at each other and the response being, ‘we don’t know, but we know we need a social worker to get us started,’” recalled Kirsten, who has a child welfare background. “Prior to my joining the district, we were missing early identification of student needs. We weren’t screening for behavioral health or social emotional competencies. My job was to find a holistic mechanism to identify children in need.”
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was finishing up its third year of the Garrett Lee Smith (GLS) federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and allowed DASD to join. That enabled them to pilot bhworks, the comprehensive, validated software platform powered by mdlogix, and confirm what it could do.
The web-based platform can be used for obtaining consents, universal or indicated screening, social emotional learning (SEL) assessment, referrals, care coordination,
storing and sharing case notes, real-time site and population data analytics, telehealth/ virtual care, and integration with existing systems. It is HIPAA and FERPA compliant.
“We were quickly sold,” Kirsten explained. “The system’s Behavioral Health Screen [BHS] identified multiple students who were currently experiencing suicidal ideation, as well as a myriad of other mental health needs. As a district that participated in the Pennsylvania Youth Survey, we knew aggregately that there were significant needs in the district. This tool helped us find the individual students so that we could offer support and intervene.”
Once DASD was finished with the grant in 2018 – 2019, they hired a second social worker and paid for bhworks to continue. The district expanded into universal screening and progress monitoring. They decided to let the parents opt out of their child being screened instead of agreeing or opting in.
The District chose to screen Grades 7 and 9 because those were grade levels that were new to buildings, and if mental health issues are going to surface, they frequently do so around the start of puberty. Only about 15 of the 600 students in those two grades chose not to participate.
“This generation and their willingness to use technology to communicate is very different from what they would ever convey in person to an adult,” Kirsten said. The District emphasized and repeated the message that students’ mental health is as important as their academic success.
In-Person Schooling During Pandemic
Dover remained open for in-school learning during the 2020 pandemic, and parents were grateful for the screening opportunity to ‘take the mental health temperature’ of their kids.
Kirsten said, “I am exceptionally proud of how the District fared [with respect to COVID cases]. We operated safely and did not see a community spread.”
However, as they reintegrated into school in fall 2020, the transition from the long quarantine wasn’t smooth for the students. What DASD experienced was a student
uptick in anxiety; more debilitating than they had ever seen before, with significant internalizing symptoms.
“Globally, we are well aware we are in a mental health crisis,” Kirsten expressed. Plus, while they have a school-based therapy provider who is a huge asset to the community, any need beyond outpatient is stymied. There are no in-home providers and psychiatric access is at least 45 days. The two social workers and the therapy provider try to fill the gaps.
The use of bhworks as a tool for school counselors who are not trained in mental health and schools without social workers, allows them to at least quickly and accurately conduct needs assessments.
Expanding to More Students
Even with the provider challenge, Kirsten explained it’s critical to move to an even larger scale this coming school year. Come September, every student from Grades 6 – 12 who visits his/her/their school counselor will get a behavioral health screen.
“Kudos to this system,” said Kirsten. “It has altered how we meet the needs of students. It’s providing important data, communicating at a universal level the integration between mental health and academic success, and is allowing us to move our efforts forward in social and emotional learning. The use of the tool conveys the importance of student mental health in partnership with families, and is working with us to reduce the stigma of these ever prevalent challenges.”
Editor’s Note: Please contact Kirsten Johnson, firstname.lastname@example.org for more