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Superior Schools seek local support for student mental health needs

"I think it needs to be really a comprehensive community response,” said District Administrator Amy Starzecki.

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SUPERIOR — Two years of disrupted learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have left an impact on the Superior School District that can be measured in rising levels of truancy and increased illegal behavior among younger students, officials said.

District Administrator Amy Starzecki shared a presentation about the issue and the need for local support for students’ social, emotional, behavioral and mental health needs with the school board on Feb. 7. It's a message she wants to share with the community.

“This increase in more serious behavior is not unique to Superior. Districts around the country are all experiencing the same situation,” Starzecki said. “What I believe is unique to Superior is the lack of community resources to address many of these needs. This concern existed prior to the pandemic and is now even more magnified.”

Criminal behavior

Illegal behavior at Superior Middle School among students ages 11-14 has skyrocketed this year, according to information provided to the Telegram.

From Sept. 1 to Feb. 8 of this school year, the number of incidents at SMS involving alcohol, tobacco, illegal substances or weapons increased substantially compared to the same time frame in the previous school year, according to information provided to the Telegram. Starzecki declined to provide the number of incidents due to concerns about identifying students.

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“It’s not that these have never happened. I think we’re just seeing a significant increase in the amount,” Starzecki said.

Middle school Principal David Jensen said vaping is the biggest concern. A few of the vaping devices found at the middle school contained marijuana. Vaping is also a concern at the high school, where monitors sweep the bathrooms every hour.

“Vaping was an issue before the pandemic; it feels worse than it did before,” Starzecki said.

Despite the rise in incidents, Jensen said only a small percentage of the school population is engaging in these behaviors. Jensen told the school board that 84% of middle schoolers — more than 900 students — have exhibited tier one behavior, which means they have one or fewer behavior referrals this school year.

But the incidents are a big draw on staff time, attention and resources, which ends up affecting all students, Starzecki said.

Holding students accountable for the behaviors can lead to suspension. That time out of the classroom impacts learning, academics and graduation rates, she said.

Truancy

Chronic absenteeism has risen in the younger grades, as well.

The number of elementary school students who were absent 10 or more days through Dec. 31 was 99, compared to 84 in 2019.

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The number of middle school students absent 10 or more days was 117, compared to 72 in 2019.

In a reversal, the number of high school students absent 10 or more days was down this year, 87, compared to 109 in 2019.

Absences due to COVID-19 were not factored into the figures, according to the information presented to the board.

Students had class 73 days in that time period.

Starzecki said missing 10% or more of school days due to absence for any reason — excused, unexcused absences and suspensions — can lead to students having difficulty learning to read by third grade, achieving in middle school, and graduating from high school.

Graduation rates

Superior’s graduation rate for the 2019-2020 school year was 84.3%, according to information Starzecki presented to the board. The district ranked 316 out of 331 districts in the state, putting it in the bottom 5%.

The district graduation rate has trailed the state average for the last five years, but that gap increased in the 2020-2021 school year, 85.5% to 90.5%. The number of students identified with special needs who graduated from Superior in 2020-2021 was 48.6%, down from 62.1% in 2019-2020 and 75.8% in 2018-2019, according to information provided to the Telegram.

Searching for solutions

School-based mental health counseling services are currently full, with long waiting lists, Starzecki told the board.

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The district has allocated federal COVID-19 funding into short-term solutions, she told the board. That includes adding principals, deans, counselors, social workers, mentors and an at-risk coordinator; implementing restorative practices, social emotional learning curriculum and supports; and lowering class sizes, particularly at the elementary schools.

“We have tried to everything research said to do in these matters,” Starzecki said.

That funding, however, runs out in 2024.

Students need long-term supports, Starzecki said. Those include family wraparound services, alcohol and other drug abuse treatment programs, more school-based mental health services, a juvenile detention center that is closer than Eau Claire, and a continuum of mental health services that includes outpatient, residential and day treatment options.

The Superior School Board lobbied for changes to state statute that in September widened the pool of school social worker candidates. Prior to that, only social workers who received a master’s degree from a trio of colleges in Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay could work directly with students.

“One of the things that people, I think, thought we were trying to advocate for was lowering the bar and that’s not what we were advocating for,” Starzecki said. “We were advocating that regardless of where you got your master’s degree, you were able to apply for a school social worker license.”

Now regional graduates from the College of St. Scholastica and University of Minnesota Duluth are eligible to work in schools.

“And that’s the people we’ve attracted. The three people we have, we have as graduates in our region, not from other parts of the state,” Starzecki said.

She aims to partner with the community to promote additional changes that could ease the strained mental health support system in Douglas County.

Board member Mike Meyer brought up one factor that is preventing some providers from bringing services to Superior, services that are available in Duluth: Medicaid reimbursement rates differ from state to state.

“Our state pays someone with my licensure, LICSW, about $35 a contact, compared to around $80-$120 in Duluth," said Meyer, a licensed independent clinical social worker and school social worker in Minnesota. “If I was a business person looking to come into the community to provide services … I wouldn’t venture over here because it doesn’t make financial sense.”

The reimbursement rate imbalance has been a problem for years, Starzecki said.

“We can’t just be held hostage to that."

She plans to bring her presentation to the city and county boards, and ask them a question: What’s the next step for the community?

"I think it needs to be really a comprehensive community response,” the district administrator said.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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