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Lawrence school board candidates provide ideas for access to mental health services, internet

Candidates for Lawrence school board answered questions about how students can access opportunities equitably across the school district during a forum hosted by the Lawrence branch of the NAACP Thursday. Six participants offered ideas for a variety of issues related to equity: accessing educational opportunities, restorative practices, education lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health services, internet access and physical activity for secondary students who don’t belong to athletic teams.

Ursula Minor, Lawrence NAACP chapter president, moderated the virtual event.

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Candidates participating in the forum, in alphabetical order by last name, were Kay Emerson, GR Gordon-Ross, Kelly Jones, Nate Morsches, Andrew Nussbaum and Elizabeth Stephens.

Participants were asked about their plans to address the mental health needs of students and staff in the school district. Several candidates highlighted within their answers the recent budget decision by the city of Lawrence to discontinue funding for the Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities program in Lawrence Public Schools.

In a partnership with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, the WRAP early intervention program helps fund the placement of mental health specialists in schools across the district. Those critical of the funding cut say the funds are desperately needed as the community struggles with fallout from the pandemic. 

Gordon-Ross said the way to acknowledge mental health challenges is to first acknowledge their existence. He said staffing decisions and funding for the WRAP program, including the systems and staff already in place addressing those needs must not be reduced or eliminated. He said the district should “continue to talk to students, talk to staff, listen to their feedback when they tell us what it is, when they tell us what their needs are and make sure that if there (are) systems, programs, things that we need to provide to address their mental health, to address ways that we can make them feel comfortable, that we can make them feel safe, … that we work to implement those to the best of our ability.”

Calling it her “passion area,” Jones told the forum she began her social work career in mental health services in an educational setting. She said she believes the district had moved toward progress by prioritizing social-emotional well-being on equal footing with academics for students. An example, she said, is the placement of a counselor in each Lawrence school, regardless of their enrollment numbers. Previously critical of the city’s decision to cut funding for WRAP, Jones said the board can prioritize funding for social-emotional services, including expansion of social workers and other mental health workers. “That includes prioritizing staff. So you have to look at, ‘Do you have a staff that is socially-emotionally well?’ They are then able to best serve our students.”

Stephens said a “ton of things” could be done, and started off with the possibility of replacing school resource officers with social workers or at least requiring SROs have a social work background to work in schools, funding the WRAP program and mental health programs for staff. “Healthy staff means healthy students. Implementing a trauma-informed practice for both administrators and our students as well, understanding how trauma influences our day-to-day lives,” she said, adding substance-use disorders and overdoses had increased during the pandemic and could be addressed with community partnerships. For youth experiencing homelessness, she said, wraparound services were a must-have in schools to help marginalized students thrive.

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Morsches told the forum his experience as a registered nurse during the pandemic had shown him how social isolation, changes in routine and unpredictability of the future had made an impact on mental health. The WRAP program was in his sights at the beginning of his campaign, he said, and he met with Bert Nash staff. He was excited to hear about the possibilities for the program — even an expansion of services for family members of clients. But the city’s subsequent decision to eliminate its funding for WRAP had caused him to pivot. “I realized my fight is going to be more — at the very least — keep the WRAP program where it is, continue the services that we currently provide … with less resources to go around, someone’s going to have to fund it.”

Emerson said she wanted to elevate the pressures teachers, staff and students have faced in the pandemic. She cited the recent board approval to reduce diploma requirements for the class of 2022 as an example. “I think about, ‘What else can we do inside our policies to help our teachers not feel so much of that pressure?’ Like they’re going in five, six different ways and still trying to figure out when they’re going to go to the bathroom, while eating, while trying to help a student. These are some very just basic human needs that we need to try to see how we can just improve upon … so they can come and be their best selves, when I say teachers, I mean … all educators and staff.”  Emerson offered these possible ideas to help alleviate more pressure: review of policies like employee attendance, reevaluating use of pandemic relief dollars for well-being, and partnering with community organizations to provide helpful services like yoga.

Saying he hoped he would get four years on the board to address mental health issues, Nussbaum — a therapeutic special educator who formerly worked in the district — said the district needed to listen to the “wisdom on the margins” and not look at those students as “the problem” when they tell the truth about sexism, ableism and racism in the schools. “I love what Elizabeth (Stephens) said relative to police. I believe, if we’re talking about well-being and belonging for all of our students and staff, we need to be working toward police-free schools.” Nussbaum also cautioned against using social-emotional teaching as “another means of punitive discipline when we then perpetuate whiteness or other dominant identities onto what respect looks like, what conversation looks like, what people’s interactions look like in the classroom and in the hallway.” Also, he said, paying classified staff a living wage is a way to show investment and concern for mental health.

With about a third of district students attending fully remote learning during the 2020-2021 academic year, access to reliable internet proved challenging at times for some families. But even before the pandemic, some students struggled to complete homework after hours due to unreliable access to the internet.

Minor asked candidates, if they were elected, how they would address problems related to students’ accessing to the internet. Partnerships with community organizations and businesses who could provide hotspots or equipment to students rounded out the bulk of the answers.

But, Emerson said, in order to access free or reduced services, the district needed to identify who could benefit from them and actively search for who needed them. She suggested embedding qualification methods into current systems such as enrollment forms and parent-teacher conferences.

Stephens said looking outside the community “bubble” for national partnerships should be an option too. She said the reasons students face barriers to internet access should be explored, too, and then addressed. She gave an anecdotal example of a student in a McDonald’s parking lot doing her homework via the restaurant’s free WiFi.

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Gordon-Ross said his current work on the district’s facilities committee has included researching the possible use of pandemic relief funding to expand the district’s WiFi infrastructure into neighborhoods surrounding schools. He said it wouldn’t cover the entire district but would help open up mobile hotspot devices for those who live farther away from schools.

Jones said she thought the district “worked diligently” last year in identifying families who needed support with internet access. She said internet access was an ongoing issue related to equity. She also floated the idea of families purchasing devices like laptops and iPads after graduation.

Nussbaum mentioned online textbooks, online forums — and even PowerSchool — and asked if the educational system required internet usage, how could students access a free public education if internet usage was required to use educational materials. He suggested alternative methods for enrollment tools and other materials to guarantee access for all.

Morsches said the district needed to act proactively in addressing students’ equitable access to the internet, and as a bonus, partnerships could help boost economic development within the community. He said broadband services were key in providing everyone opportunities to succeed.

Find a recording of the event on the Lawrence Kansas Branch of the NAACP’s Facebook page.

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— Tricia Masenthin (she/her), reporter, can be reached via email at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com.

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