Mental health of students and teachers has been a point of discussion at recent Warwick School District meetings as the board weighs options on ways to handle individuals suffering from issues at home and in the classroom.
Angie Lingo, a Lititz resident and a parent of several children in the school district, asked the Warwick School Board at its Jan. 17 meeting if they had ever considered adding the verbiage of mental health to the district’s attendance policy as an excused absence.
Lingo said she was moved by a recent presentation at the Dec. 6 Warwick Committee of the Whole meeting in which several district administrators presented information about the mental health of students. She said she was “shocked” and “very worried about the high percentages of students who are suffering,” suggesting that mental health days could be an alternative solution that should be considered.
“It would be a great way to make the students and teachers struggling with mental health issues feel supported,” Lingo said. “I know that is something we all want – for students and staff to feel supported, especially those who are battling any mental, emotional or behavioral struggles.”
Lingo said she did preliminary research on the topic of permitted mental health days in schools and found 12 states have already passed legislation allowing students to take three to five mental health days per year as excused absences. The states include Washington, California, Illinois, Virginia, Maine, Connecticut, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Kentucky and Colorado.
Lingo said Pennsylvania has considered policies allowing mental health days, but has not taken action to codify language in law. She pointed to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website which states “It is the responsibility of each district to determine the validity of excuses and have clear written policies regarding absences,” while Pennsylvania law defines absences as excused “when a student is prevented from attendance for mental, physical or other urgent reasons.”
Superintendent Dr. April Hershey said Warwick’s current school code doesn’t exclude mental health from approved absences.
“We work with every family when there’s a child who has a need, and we will continue to do that,” Hershey said.
Lingo said she recently submitted an excuse for mental health for one of her children, and the excuse was denied because the mental health issue was deemed “not urgent.” Section 1329 of the Pennsylvania School Code uses the term “urgent reasons” for an absence and cites mental health as a valid excuse, but the language said the definition “shall be strictly construed and shall not permit of irregular attendance.”
Hershey asked Lingo if she spoke to the building principal and counselor about the excuse, and she said she did. Hershey said she would look into the matter.
Dr. Melanie Calender, Warwick assistant superintendent, said mental health is excused if a student is seeing a licensed physician for mental health care.
“I do still think that adding the words mental and physical health would be beneficial to the policy,” Lingo said.
Last week’s mental health discussion comes after a lengthy presentation at Warwick’s Committee of the Whole meeting on Dec. 6 in which staff outlined mental health support in the school district and the services available to students. The presentation was made by: Colleen Heckman, director of student services; Steve Szobocsan, director of secondary curriculum, instruction and assessment; Kristy Szobocsan, Warwick High School principal; Earl Hazel, Warwick athletic director, and; Megan Demianovich, Warwick High School psychologist.
The staff reported in the fall of 2022, a Teen Hope screening of students found that 20% of 10th graders were at risk for mental health and 6% reported self-harm or suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks. In the middle school, 24% of seventh graders were found to be at risk, and 10% reported self-harm or suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks.
Because of the data, staff requested to expand the mental health services offered by the district, including adding an additional school psychologist at the high school. The presenters said having an additional high school psychologist would provide better response time to crises, conduct risk and threat assessments and support staff.
For the 1,224 students at Warwick High School, school psychologist Christina Moore covered ninth grade along with the middle school, while Demianovich handled grades 10-12. The high school also has four school counselors, two school social workers and home school visitors, student attendance intervention programming, school based counseling through Wellspan, Teen Hope mental health screening and a school counseling curriculum.
Board President Todd Rucci called mental health services in the district “highly important” to help students succeed. Rucci said he would give the staff his “full support” in whatever mental health needs are identified.
“Quite frankly, this is something that if we don’t get this right, all the other stuff really doesn’t matter – if our students don’t feel supported,” Rucci said.
Board member Nelson Peters agreed with Rucci’s take on supporting staff in expanding mental health counseling. Peters began crying when talking about the issue.
“If we can help that student and that family work through their situations, we gain a better community,” Peters said. “Investing in this is not an option. It’s a necessity. So, this is the beginning of something, it’s not a replacement of something.”
At the Jan. 3 Committee of the Whole meeting, Demianovich was moved from her high school psychologist role to coordinator of student services for the Warwick School District, replacing Heather Bellows who resigned. She will receive an annual salary of $85,000.
And at the Jan. 17 board meeting, Moore was moved into a full-time role as the school psychologist at the Warwick High School, moving out of the middle school. The move was done as a “new position due to student needs.”
The board and district staff have yet to make public what they plan to do with the now open middle school psychologist position and the open high school position.