, Salem, MA

April 29, 2013

Troubled students in schools raise concerns

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — Dealing with the problems of students can be a matter of life and death, according to one member of the Peabody School Committee. Yet, in treating kids suffering emotionally or mentally, school personnel are often working in the dark.

According to the School Department’s nurse leader, Linnea Whalen, privacy concerns are contributing to a situation where students return from treatment for emotional or mental problems with no one at the school informed.

That can have real consequences.

“Especially at the high school level, there are a lot of suicidal students,” Whalen told the School Committee at a recent meeting.

Sometimes, school officials are informed after kids return from treatment, and they can work with the youngsters. On other occasions, they are given no guidance regarding troubled students.

“What if the student’s parents do not sign off?” asked School Committee member Thomas Rossignoll.

“There really is nothing we can do,” Whalen said. “If it is a behavioral or mental health issue, a lot of parents do not want to reveal that.” Whalen described a long-term situation that “has weighed heavily on my heart.”

Pressed to describe what she’s seen in school, she described a violent clash involving a student who had returned after an absence. “Something was said, and it triggered something. And the student started beating on the kid in front of him.”

Some students make it clear they don’t want to stay in class, she added. “And sometimes they present in the nurse’s office in a very strong manner.”

“It’s a matter of life and death,” commented board member Dave McGeney.

“The high school is where we see some of these problems the most,” Whalen said.

Higgins Middle School also deals with difficult cases, she said. Occasionally, students with such problems have even appeared in the elementary grades.

Whalen has offered a plan for dealing with students returning to school after missing class due to treatment for emotional or mental difficulties. The report offered direction for the administration, asking it to assign an “understanding adult ... to touch base with the student at given intervals.”

In addition, the plan suggested offering support for the child, that the family should be reassured and classroom assistance for the student given, including helping make up work. The school nurse could work with the parents to administer medication, and steps can be taken to ensure that only prescribed drugs are being used.

But the report also advises asking parents and the student’s doctor for information, and that’s where board members seemed stymied.

“It’s a policy difficult to enforce,” Rossignoll said, “difficult to get off the ground.”

Committeeman Ed Charest cited HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which is said to protect the privacy of people receiving medical treatment. He also asked that the schools’ special education director have input into the plan.

The board voted unanimously to take the matter to member Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne’s Quality and Standards Subcommittee for further study and then reintroduce it at the next meeting. In addition, there was a request to consult with city lawyers on precisely what rights the schools have in dealing with this troubled — and sometimes hidden — population.

In formulating her policy, Whalen said she consulted administrators, guidance counselors, nurses, school psychologists and adjustment counselors.