NIAGARA FALLS (WBEN) - On Tuesday afternoon, Congressman Brian Higgins joined Niagara Falls Superintendent Mark Laurrie to announce a federal grant that totals $2.49 million over the next five years.
This equals out to $498,000 on an annual basis, and the money will go toward putting additional mental health resources into the school district. This includes increased community and family outreach, training teachers to identify needs of students, and expanding access to mental health professionals available to students.
"This grant helps our district with something that we have found to be paramount in the education of our children - sound mental hygiene," said Laurrie. "Students must have the help they need to combat issues like depression and anxiety in order to learn and function at their best."
The school district will be working with Niagara University to implement a five-year Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration project, which will add five graduate-level social work interns, five school psychologist interns and five school counseling interns each year.
"I'm going to be petitioning the school board all the time to use our funds to hire more and more social workers, school psychologists, school counselors," said Laurrie. "But, the initial (group) of 15 that we will work with Niagara University in getting are those in graduate school, and they'll work hand in hand with our current staff. There will be more boots on the ground in the schools immediately to give support to students."
The grant also provides an avenue for professional development to help teachers recognize trauma-induced behaviors sooner, which will allow for earlier intervention, and it will also help ease some of the burden placed on the school counselors.
"Training the teachers is important because teachers are the first line of service - the kids walk in, they see them every single day, the teacher is going to know that kid looks a little bit disheveled, that kid's not acting the way they usually do," said Chandra Foote, the dean of the College of Education at Niagara University. "Having the teacher know what to do with a student at that point, and then, once you identify them...right now, the counselors are overloaded. You can't send every child to the counselors that we have in place and actually have their needs met."
Laurrie echoed Foote's sentiments, noting that there is such a tremendous need for mental health awareness and proactivity in today's school kids that the district really needs to start implementing an all hands on deck kind of approach.
"The only way that we can do this is if we train our teachers, who have 20-22 kids in front of them, to be a first line, as Dr. Foote said, of defense and support," he said. "It's got to be more than just, 'If you have a problem then go to the counselor.' They've got to be able to, not only teach math, science and social studies, but also to recognize and treat kids, and then resource them out when it's come to a level. We'll never be able to outsource this all to counselors - teachers have got to change their role."