CCSD works to combat bullying and prevent suicide

Published 8:00 am Thursday, January 6, 2022

VALLEY — The mental health of students had been a growing concern for some time before the COVID pandemic hit. It’s even worse now.

The Chambers County School District has taken steps to help deal with this problem by hiring a mental health specialist. Shelia Leverette, who has a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, was the guest speaker at Wednesday’s noon hour meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Valley and talked about what’s being done to help students, their families and staff in coping with the pandemic.

She was introduced by Ken Sealy, the school system’s career tech director.

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“We are part of a statewide effort in addressing mental health,” Sealy said. “It’s a problem for schools, and COVID has worsened it. In my head, I am still a teacher, and I want to help students. We are not trained to deal with mental health issues, but we face it every day.”

Sealy said Leverette was doing an excellent job as the system’s mental health coordinator.

“I wish we had ten of her, one for each school,” he said. “She helps educate students, parents, teachers and staff on timely mental health practices. We help anyone who has been having suicidal thoughts or has been bullied. There’s a stigma around having a mental health problem, but all of us have had mental issues to some degree over time. It’s all about how we handle stress.”

Leverette said that mental health is not a bad term and that we needed to get past that mindset.

There’s a five-part framework the CCSD’s mental health policy is based around:

(1) Self Awareness. “Sometimes kids don’t know how to react to things,” Leverette said. “We need to prepare them for that.”

(2) Self-Management. “This is all about how we handle our emotions,” she said.

(3) Social Awareness. “We help kids realize that everyone is different, but that everyone should be treated the same,” Leverette said.

(4) Relationship Skills. “Some people don’t know how to communicate with others,” she said.

(5) Think Before You Act. “Later this month we will be implementing a new program to monitor kids’ emotions,” Leverette said.

This will involve the use of a dashboard. The student behind it can pick an emoji that best describes how they feel. “It’s a way of reaching out to them in a way that does not single them out and embarrass them,” Leverette said.

Some situations can be handled by a school counselor. More complicated cases will be handled by Leverette, and in some cases, East Alabama Mental Health could get involved.

Leverette is working on protocols on how to deal with suicide threats and bullying.

“Bullying is a problem in our area,” Leverette said. “We want kids who are being bullied to know that we can help them.”

In this post-COVID era, suicide has become a more prevalent issue than it was pre-COVID.

“We need to get this across to the parents,” Sealy said. “We need their help in dealing with it. We need to educate the parents about it. Things today are so different from the way they were when we were in school.”

Facebook is a factor in worsening it. Leverette said that some students have gone on Facebook and blamed other students for spreading COVID.

Sealy said it’s never helpful to play the blame game.

“Our superintendent (Casey Chambley) has told us to always do the best things we know how to do. The best way to protect one another from getting COVID is to get vaccinated, wear masks when you are around others and to avoid large gatherings. It’s been hard, but we have learned how to deal with it. COVID would have been a lot worse without that. I promise you we don’t tell who has had COVID,” Sealy said.

Sealy said there had been one situation at the COVID outbreak in the spring of 2020 when one person in a class had been exposed to someone who had tested positive.

“The entire class was sent home,” he said. “We cleaned the room the best we could.”

Isolating for 10 days and taking precautions paid off.

“Not a single person on that campus got COVID,” Sealy said.

COVID is an administrator’s nightmare.

“It’s terrifying,” he said. “It’s your job to take care of everyone. Our kids did a good job of wearing masks when asked to. We are back to wearing them now.”