A student lifeline

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/12/2007 – 7:43 am

By The Times-Union

The senseless shooting of Jesse Ortiz shook Sandalwood High School. 

When the 19-year-old died in March after being on life support, it only made his friends’ desire for revenge stronger.

It
took counselor Kathy Cobb and other mental health professionals many
one-on-one and group counseling sessions to convince students to cope
without reaching for a gun.

That was after Duval County schools’ Crisis Team had already worked with them.

This intervention is critical to thwarting juvenile crime and improving academic performance.

Yet,
Duval County’s schools have only four drug and alcohol prevention
counselors and a five-member Crisis Team to serve an estimated 124,945
students.

The ratio of support to need must be better balanced by placing one full-time mental health counselor in each school.

Only then will a significant barrier to student achievement begin to be torn down.

Strained resources

Cobb sees more than 300 students each year, many on a regular basis.

Each youth has a family background of drug or alcohol abuse. Many come at the suggestion of a friend with a similar background.

Cobb used to see families, too, but over the years the number of counselors has shrunk to four.

Funding to serve eight high schools comes under a federal grant for the Zeroing In on Prevention program.

Most
students are in the same lower income neighborhoods plagued by all that
drives Jacksonville’s high homicide rate: loss of hope for the future,
drugs, violence and poverty.

As youths grow up in this environment, they often don’t learn coping skills.

Instead, they learn to react violently.

Even in other neighborhoods, kids are growing up re-enacting the family and community violence they experience.

This
can lead to a path of criminal behavior or dropping out of school,
especially when facing losses of parents, siblings and other loved
ones.

Sylvia Johnson, principal of Eugene Butler Middle School, saw firsthand the difference counseling can make.

When
she was principal of West Jacksonville Elementary School, 27 students
who lost family or friends from homicide were counseled, thanks to a
yearlong grant from Community Hospice.

Of that group, 85 percent were successful academically.

"That was one person coming twice a week," Johnson said. "Imagine what she could have done full-time."

Stretching resources

Last school year, Duval County’s Crisis Team responded 254 times.

Most of the work was grief counseling and suicide prevention, said Karen Mullis, team coordinator.

The district joins with outside agencies for some services. When possible, guidance counselors help.

Response time has improved from previous years, when crisis team members had additional responsibilities.

Delays of two to four hours left students stuck in classrooms, upset and crying.

With a dedicated team in place, Mullis’ group will begin training staff and faculty at 22 schools in high-crime areas.

The school-based teams will know how to respond to shootings or bombings.

They will secure student safety, notify Mullis and keep order until police and other authorities arrive.

Duval County is wisely investing time and money on this training.

And, to its credit, the district is expanding its full-service school model so more families can get faster access to services.

Still, the reality is students need more one-on-one mental health counseling.

Left
unaddressed, this deficiency is setting up a class of kids who may
never see graduation and are more likely to be set up for failure.

Funding will be a challenge no matter how tight the budget year.

But the alternative for both youth and the community is much worse.

"Without
counseling, they’re going to keep going with this cycle of violence,"
Cobb said. "They need to learn there’s another way to do it."


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Copyright
The Florida Times-Union.

http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/071207/opi_183806596.shtml

 

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