The more Liberty High School Principal Harrison Bailey III learned about trauma, the more he spotted it in his Bethlehem school of 2,800 students.
“I dove into it and felt, yes, this is big,” Bailey said Tuesday. “This is something we need to talk about, rip apart and work on.”
Trauma — exposure to abuse, neglect, family dysfunction, drug abuse or mental health issues — changes a child’s brain, causing stress hormones to rise, literally turning off the part of the brain that facilitates learning.
Liberty plunged into becoming a trauma-informed high school two years ago and now is urging the state to provide Liberty’s staff with the funding needed to pilot their ideas. The Bethlehem Area School District believes its largest school’s program could become a model for others in the state.
“When you think about our makeup, Liberty is a microcosm of the country in terms of our diversity in every way,” Bailey said. “If you are going to see if something works, see it if works at a place that represents the country.”
While about 59 percent of Liberty’s students are economically disadvantaged, the school isn’t lacking resources. Liberty has a diverse student body where more than half of students aren’t white. It regularly sends students to Ivy League schools and boasts a long list of Advance Placement classes and extracurriculars.
But the students walking its halls are facing increasingly complex problems, with many already having experienced trauma, Bailey said.
One in four children in America have experienced a significant traumatic event, but there’s a dearth of mental health supports available. In the Lehigh Valley, there’s a three-month wait for children to obtain psychological services outside of school; the wait for psychiatrists is even longer, according to the district.
“We were providing supports for students dealing with so many challenges that did not just have emotional ramifications but physiological ramifications,” Bailey said. “These experiences were preventing them from learning as they should be.”
A crucial part of Liberty’s plans center on creating a wellness center staffed by four social workers, an occupational therapist and one psychologist managing interns from local universities. The suite would be outfitted with a sensory and peace room for struggling students to visit and decompress.
Currently, Liberty has a social worker from Pinebrook Family Answers and one Communities in Schools case manager on staff, Bailey said.
To pay for this expansion of mental health supports, the Bethlehem Area School Board is being asked Oct. 28 to support applying for a $390,000 competitive grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The commission is providing $33.78 million in funding to make Pennsylvania schools safer places.
“The need is there,” Superintendent Joseph Roy said.
After meeting with state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh/Northampton), Roy believes state government is taking a broader view of student safety today. It is not just about metal detectors and security cameras anymore, he said.
The superintendent praised Bailey for his leadership developing a program that integrates mental health services into the high school.
“The vision is to build on a one-stop location,” Roy said.
When the district’s Broughal Middle School became a trauma-informed school, it saw a huge drop in the number of failing students and discipline referrals while the average student GPA jumped.
Bailey knows with more mental health supports he can effect real change in his students’ lives. The district’s long relied on small nonprofits with unreliable funding to respond to mental health needs, he said.
“The availability of mental health care in our country is at epidemic levels,” he said. “We just do not have the level of mental health care we need. That’s for anyone. We just don’t have those services anymore and I think that exponentially affects children.”
This means school districts are often “left holding the bag,” Bailey said. And statistics confirm that, nationally, 70% to 80% of students receive mental health treatment through school, according to the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools.
Right now, Liberty can refer students to care, but it doesn’t have the money or the staff to handle the demand itself, Bailey.
“It’s really a bad situation,” he said.
The wellness center is an attempt to provide stability and give the district more control of its mental health supports, Bailey said.
“Education is no longer that place where you just teach kids the alphabet,” the principal said.
The why of all of this is complex and multi-faceted. The education and medical worlds are paying more attention to trauma as new science emerges, Bailey said.
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