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State commission touts Riverside School District mental health initiatives

Times-Tribune - 5/19/2024

TAYLOR — When it comes to student mental health, Riverside School District officials spread the message that it’s OK to not be OK. On Friday, their efforts were recognized by the state.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency formally recognized the district’s work in a program in the high school auditorium attended by students, faculty, board members and administrators.

Mike Pennington, the commission’s executive director, lauded the district’s efforts addressing students’ mental health needs, pointing out it received nearly $459,000 in school safety grant funding this school year, including almost $119,000 to support student mental health.

District officials plan to use the money to hire a mental health supervisor overseeing mental health staff, and a mental health and wellness coordinator, who will be responsible for student activities, such as healthy eating habits and exercise, and providing mentoring outside school hours.

“As every school in our commonwealth should, Riverside School District has made student mental health a priority.” Pennington said.

He spoke about the importance of addressing students’ needs, pointing to a 2023 survey by the commission showing that 44% of seniors and 40% of sophomores in Lackawanna County have reported feeling sad or depressed in the last year, while 18% of sophomores and seniors seriously considered attempting suicide. These feelings, he said, make it hard for students to focus on school.

“These numbers are devastating and truly show the prevalence of mental health concerns among our students,” Pennington said. “They need our help.”

JT Yarem, the district’s crisis counselor and counseling department chair, began efforts to address student mental health when he arrived as crisis counselor in 2016. That school year, he initiated the Safe2Say Something program, which allows students and faculty to anonymously report someone who is a threat to themselves or others.

In its first few months, Yarem said he received more than 100 referrals for mental health concerns. A school climate survey in 2018 he conducted showed 50% of students in the district reported feeling anxious and more than 10% had thoughts of suicide.

School officials highlighted several initiatives to address student mental health in recent years. They include presentations on bullying and cyber bullying, a mental health fair and an Aevidum club at the high school, which started last spring. The club, which takes its name from a Latin phrase meaning “I’ve got your back,” is composed of students who discuss their mental health.

The district also has school counselors, outpatient therapists, a physician’s assistant and crisis counselors. District officials also initiated programs addressing student athletes’ mental health needs, and trained administrators, and Moosic and Taylor police officers in mental health first aid.

In fall 2022, the district received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, which allowed officials to put a licensed professional counselor in each of its three buildings for the next three years.

Students, families and teachers said the initiatives had a positive impact. Riverside Elementary School East sixth-grader Christian Englehardt said school counselors made it easier for him to talk about his feelings, and taught him patience, discipline and self-confidence.

Caitlin Mattioli, a kindergarten teacher at Riverside Elementary School West, said the support services help her on a day-to-day basis.

“They create emotionally intelligent students,” she said.

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