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Ottumwa Community School District offices

OTTUMWA — The school board renewed its contract with the Southern Iowa Mental Health Center on Monday which, according to the center’s proposal, will provide “licensed mental health therapists” to Liberty and all the north-side elementary schools.

While this deal represents a continued partnership between the district and the SIMHC, there is a notable dip in the services provided by the center in this year’s contract.

In the past, the SIMHC guaranteed that it would have licensed mental health care providers at Evans and all the elementary schools for 50 hours every week. This year, that amount has dropped to 32 hours per week, and there will no longer be SIMHC personnel stationed at the middle school. This is the result of a manpower shortage at the center and not because of any budgetary issues with the district.

Nonetheless, this has posed a challenge to the schools.

“I love our partnership with them. The plan would not be to move away from them, it would be to supplement the gap that we have of those 18 hours,” said Nicole Kooiker, district superintendent. “I think we can be creative and figure that out.”

The district has a number of new initiatives like the ASPIRE program that aim to better the lives of the student population, but as Kooiker stressed, teachers are not trained mental health care professionals and, as mental health diagnoses increase, teachers are expected to shoulder more and more of the responsibility of caring for their students’ mental health.

This also comes at a time when the district has seen higher numbers of enrolled students than the past two years and a large number of teachers occupying first-year positions.

While other plans to close the gap are still in the works, the AEA managed to procure $140,000 a year from the Department of Education in order to expand the district’s mental health care capabilities.

Meanwhile, the SIMHC has agreed to continue working for the district at its previous rate of $55 per hour despite a dip the hours provided. That means that they’ve had to shoulder much of the cost of the care, which Kooiker applauded them for.

Currently the mental health care professionals provided by the SIMHC, which in some cases may be interns supervised by licensed therapists, provide the schools with crisis intervention, counseling to students, parents, or staff, and specialized mental health care training to any of the serviced schools’ staff upon request. They will also act as a liaison between the schools and other mental health care agencies, and will provide referrals for students or their families seeking assistance with mental health or substance abuse.

Crisis intervention, which is the district’s top priority when it comes to student mental health, covers a wide range of issues. While it encompasses severe home situations like abuse or neglect, it also includes more common circumstances such as when a parent’s schedule forces them to take long absences from home and primary child care falls on the shoulders of an older sibling. Other potential stresses include divorce or a parent’s incarceration, all of which place can place an unnecessary burden on a child.

“If students have any of those mental health issues, to be successful in school is very challenging,” said Kooiker.

Each school has a dedicated team whose responsibility is to identify any outside factors that may be inhibiting a student’s well-being, assess home situations and, if necessary, refer the child to the school’s mental health care professional. But since different students deal with stress differently, it can sometimes be difficult to identify when a child is experiencing a stressful home environment. This is worsened all the more by a stigma people sometimes hold against mental health conditions, a mindset which Kooiker says is important to change.

“I still think people in our nation see it as a negative label,” she said. “To me it’s not a negative label. It just means it’s just like everything else. Get the supports you need and the assistance you need so you can be successful.”

The district’s contract with the SIMHC goes into effect immediately and is set to expire on June 30, 2020. At that time, the contract will be reassessed for renewal, but Kooiker expects the partnership to continue. The agreement guarantees that the therapists’ hours will not exceed 1,152 for the year.

Jack Langland can be reached at jlangland@ottumwacourier.com.

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