The Ottumwa Courier

January 29, 2013

Ottumwa schools focusing on safety

Loebsack joins discussion on sense of belonging, mental health in schools

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Congressman Dave Loebsack didn’t bring a solution to end school violence. He brought questions for teachers, mental health professionals and parents gathered for a small roundtable discussion at Evans Middle School Monday.

Carmen Pratt, a parent and member of the Ottumwa school district Community Advisory Committee, said she feels like there is progress being made at the high school.

As far as materialistic changes, there are new lights being added, fresh paint and a cleanup day for students and the community to show their pride in OHS.

When parents, the public and all the kids work together and feel a sense of belonging, the student population is safer, she believes.

That’s why school safety in Ottumwa, said Superintendent Davis Eidahl, uses a two-pronged approach. One reflects what Pratt said, working on culture, where students feel a sense of belonging and where there’s at least one trusted adult in the building a child can get help from or confide in.

Evans Middle School Principal David Harper said building relationships between kids and district employees is vital to school safety. You want these youngsters to be able to share with you if they are having a hard time or they hear about a potential danger.

Loebsack, in discussing school safety issues, is meeting with mental health professionals, law enforcement and school administrators across his congressional district.

His visit to the Ottumwa district was the first of these encounters.

While the inspiration for the ongoing dialogue was the shooting deaths of children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., it isn’t the only incident that has helped raise the alarm, Loebsack said.

“At [OHS] the faculty not only teaches the curriculum but teaches ... and models appropriate behaviors,” Eidahl said. “We believe a safe, positive culture will result in greater [scholastic] achievement.”

Different students respond differently to different approaches. For example, one way to help reach kids, Pratt said, is when the faculty lets loose. Her daughter came home from the high school recently and said OHS Principal Mark Hanson was “cool.”

She talked about an event where the principal danced — and performed some rap music — for students.

“That shows them the principal is not a scary man,” Pratt said. “He’s someone [approachable], someone they can talk to.”

But, the mother said she’d also like to see new locks on the high school classroom doors so that they can, in an emergency, be locked from the inside by the occupants.

The second prong for school safety is mental health, Eidahl said.

“We have students coming to school every day with a tremendous burden,” he said.

One problem, said Evans Middle School guidance counselor Jerry Miller, is that “we wait too long” to offer help.

With one child, he was able to identify anger issues and aggressiveness rising to the level of an emotional problem that needed professional help. He first identified the troubled child at age 6. They weren’t able to get serious help for the child until the child was 12 years old.

For one thing, this child needed inpatient care.

“There are very few available beds,” Miller said.

It’s not just a problem for kids, said Christina Schark, executive director of Southern Iowa Mental Health Center.

Right now, she said, a man who needs the help offered by a mental health facility is sitting in the Wapello County Jail, waiting for room at a facility somewhere.

“It’s an even worse [situation] for children,” she said. “I feel so bad for parents.”

There are positives locally, however. She said directors of other facilities across Iowa are surprised to learn of the collaboration between SIMH center and the Ottumwa school district.

“Every school in Ottumwa has a mental health professional physically located at each school building,” Schark said.

Several of the roundtable participants agreed that budget cuts mean less service for abused children, too. A child won’t get the level of service required unless they’re bleeding to death and under 10 years old.

“Mental health doesn’t strike me as a place where we should be cutting back,” Loebsack said.

Yet one of the big obstacles parents, educators and legislators are going to hear about, said Loebsack, is resources. There’s not enough money to pay for the things that are needed. Those with control over society’s checkbook do not want to be approached for money right now.

That’s true, said Schark. But as important as the money is, there are creative ways to help deal with some mental health issues.

“There’s an extreme shortage of mental health [professionals] in southeast Iowa. We cannot serve every adult and child asking for services.”

Not enough beds. Not enough doctors specializing in psychiatry. Not enough counselors. SIMH nearly always has waiting lists of people who want to be treated for mental illness or emotional problems.

Please understand, she said, there are things the government can do to entice professionals to consider rural Iowa, like student loan forgiveness and other incentives.

Loebsack agreed.

One category Schark said has improved is tele-medicine. Her agency has a doctor in New York who sees patients in Ottumwa via a computerized television hookup. And it works, she said, now that federal law has been brought more in line with available technology.