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Back to school
August 9, 2019

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It's time to sharpen your pencils, load up the backpack and find your thinking cap because school is back for students across Lee County beginning Monday.

Over 95,000 students will venture into classrooms across 120 schools comprised of approximately 5,500 teachers and over 11,000 employees.

Potentially, the most important aspect of not just each year, but each day at schools across the county, is keeping students safe.

Rick Parfitt, safety and security director for the district, said initiatives such as mental health awareness training and threat assessment training help schools be safe not just by "hardening," or a physical security point of view, but can help solve problems before they even arise.

"We're continuing to ramp up the mental health awareness training," Parfitt said of training that started last year. "I think it's a critical piece of our safety component."

Yes, schools are getting more cameras, especially at the entrances of the buildings -- and the district is updating equipment as well.

Prevention, though, is what Parfitt feels is most important for the security of children.

"People tend to think of keeping kids safe as the 'hardening' of schools. That is important. We need to harden the schools. But, I think we don't want to miss the point that 80 percent of what we should be doing, and the money that we spend, should be on the prevention aspect," said Parfitt. "We need to identify dangerous people before they show up."

Threat assessment training sees a "threat assessment team" -- usually the principal, the mental health team and others, teaming with School Resource Officers so that they may use all of their skills and resources to solve issues.

"We want this multi-disciplinary approach," said Parfitt. "We don't want someone looking at a problem in a unilateral way and saying, 'this kid is a problem,' or 'this kid isn't a problem.' We look at it with a team approach. Everybody has input, everybody has areas of expertise."

SROs are a big part of security in Lee County classrooms. Parfitt said they have been an invaluable addition to hallways and campuses district wide, as there is an officer at every school in the district, and two at the larger high schools. Last year, the Cape Coral Police Department and Fort Myers Police Department joined the Lee County Sheriff's Office in sending officers to protect students.

"They stepped up to the plate. They sent us the right people. All of the people there, wanted to be there," said Parfitt. "You don't want the SROs to be assigned there. You want somebody that has the ability and wants to work with kids."

Teachers around the district have undergone mental health training in hope to better understand children and look for the cause of behavioral issues, not just punish students.

"It trains 'non-mental health people' to understand behaviors -- to recognize behaviors," said Parfitt. "It covers behavioral disorders, conduct developmental disorders. I think it digs deeper into looking at a behavior and maybe digging into why it happened. Instead of reacting to the behavior from an automatic discipline standpoint -- lets find out what's driving this."

This mental health training for teachers is coupled with new mental health programs for students.

Lori Brooks, director of school counseling and mental health services for the district, took a hard look at what the biggest needs were for children last school year and found that checking in on students and following up with parents on recommendations made by counselors needed improvement.

"How do we make sure they didn't encounter a barrier? And if they did, what do we do to help?" Brooks asked herself.

The district has hired 10 additional social workers and four additional school psychologists.

"It put a social worker full-time at every high school and about four days at every middle school, with elementary getting the remaining days," Brooks said. "But, we need more."

Brooks also works with the aforementioned mental health teams at each school, putting mental health initiatives in place.

"Who knows children best in their school? The people who work there," said Brooks.

The mental health team meets weekly and discusses students of concern and pull in other people from the child's life, such as their parents and teacher.

"We gather all of the information to find out where the student is struggling and if it's a family support need or a mental health need," said Brooks. "If it's a mental health need, the team continues to puzzle through a problem solving process that's evidence-based and determine possible interventions. We talk with the parent and then deploy those potential interventions."

Brooks said the teaming and the time around the table discussing a child makes the difference in developing the most appropriate interventions and monitoring that.

Counseling is also available for students in small groups, large groups or one-on-one.

"Having a peer support group can be important to have connections throughout the school to help them when they're struggling, along with the counselors," said Brooks. "Studies show that one meaningful adult is the difference to a child."

Their are also grief groups implemented at school if a tragedy has occurred or multiple losses have occurred for a student.

Books said they also look for anxiety in children.

"Untreated, or undressed anxiety can really lead to depression," Brooks said. "So we try to catch the anxiety early with our students and help them develop strategies for coping and reducing anxiety."

They also help students who may be feeling suicidal or are living in a bad home situation.

Brooks would like to see the student-counselor ratio improve, and silence the notion that asking for help is a sign of weakness.

"Mental health is everybody's business," Brooks said. "Parents can't do it alone, schools can't do it alone, agencies can't do it alone.

"I'd like to see a continued focus in positive school climate and culture, social/emotional learning for all students and an increased focus and understanding of trauma on children."

Free meals available

For the second consecutive year, breakfast and lunch will be free to all students at the 79 traditional Lee County public schools, through the Food and Nutrition Services Department Com-munity Eligibility Program.

"The CEP program allows everybody to get a meal free of charge regardless of their economic status outside of the school," said School District of Lee County Director of Food and Nutrition Services, Lauren Couchois.

Couchois said that the school does a lot of looking into nutrition and balance, and even gets feedback from the children on what they like to eat.

She said the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, implemented in 2010 by the United States Department of Agriculture, raised nutrition standards for all meals provided by schools.

"We survey our students (district-wide) every year to look for their favorites," said Couchois. "We make sure what we're serving them is what we want to eat."

Breakfast always comes with a hot or cold option, as well as fruit and occasionally vegetables -- as well as milk.

"Everything is whole-grain, everything is kid-friendly," Couchois said.

Lunch adheres to the same standards -- always hot and cold options, as well as a vegetarian option every day.

"We're seeing a big trend for more vegetarian and vegan requests, so we're trying to cater more towards those children who are being mindful of what they're putting in their bodies," Couchois said.

Every Wednesday is "Lean and Green Wednesday," where every option that day is vegetarian, such as pasta spirals with a meatless sauce, cheesy bread, salads, vegetarian wraps, hummus wraps and they're even looking at "chicken-less nuggets."

Fresh fruits and vegetables are always offered (sometimes Monday is excluded due to delivery schedule) and the district has increased the amount of local produce it supplies by 40 percent over the last three years, coming from Oakes Farms in Naples.

Other than just surveying the students, they survey the staff on meals to see what they think of what children are eating.

"Sometimes theres a link between what children are eating and how well they do, so, we're trying to make sure they understand that eating nutritious items helps them perform better, so we survey our staff as well," said Couchois.

There is sometimes a stigma attached to children who were getting food at a reduced price, which is something the district wanted to eliminate when bringing in this program.

"Now everybody is on a level playing field, you don't have to know who's on certain status levels," said Couchois.

-- Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj

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