Maryville Getchell High School students Madison Dawson (left), Kaden Vongsa (center) and Jenasis Lee gave a presentation to their school board about mental health, lack of resources and personal stories of their peers’ struggles. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Maryville Getchell High School students Madison Dawson (left), Kaden Vongsa (center) and Jenasis Lee gave a presentation to their school board about mental health, lack of resources and personal stories of their peers’ struggles. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Students plead for better mental health support from schools

Three Marysville Getchell seniors want more counselors and improved training for staff.

MARYSVILLE — Three Marysville Getchell High School student leaders hope a speech to the school board will spur improvements to the district’s mental health resources.

Seniors Jenasis Lee, Kaden Vongsa and Madison Dawson shared comments from their struggling peers and criticized the support systems available to students in a 30-minute presentation last month.

“As students, we are advocating for our own mental health and asking you to make this a priority and take some ownership,” Lee said during the 30-minute report. “Without students, you have no school and right now your students are struggling and mentally dying due to a lack of your support.”

The group of student body officers urged the district to add mental health counselors in all Marysville schools, as well as to provide teachers and staff with social-emotional training to better serve students in distress.

“These students are reaching out to the only people that they know that they can and are getting nothing back,” Dawson told the board.

The passionate presentation began as an assignment as part of the group’s college-level Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics class. As three of the school’s top student voices — Dawson is student body president, Lee is vice president and Vongsa is treasurer — they said the project was an opportunity to make their needs known.

The group shared anonymous stories from students detailing struggles with depression or suicidal ideation who then felt dismissed by counselors, staff and teachers at Marysville Getchell.

“In no way are we blaming the staff at our school,” Dawson said. “We know this is not their fault, we are just saying they are not properly trained on how to console kids struggling.”

Superintendent Jason Thompson said the message wasn’t a surprise and validated what the district has heard time and again: students are suffering.

Still, he said change will be difficult.

“While I loved what the kids had to say and they are spot on, the first thing that comes to my mind is how are we going to pay for all of this,” Thompson said in an interview after the student presentation. “I don’t want to sound like I am not concerned, because I really am, but it is just a growing list (of needs).”

Richard Zimmerman, principal at Marysville Getchell, said he was proud of the student’s heart-felt advocacy and acknowledged that mental health resources at the school are “very limited.”

The school has four academic counselors, a counselor assisting students experiencing homelessness and a counselor focused on drug and alcohol abuse. None of these professionals are focused specifically on mental health.

Help exists if you’re struggling with classes, Lee said, but emotional support is basically nonexistent.

As part of their project, the group surveyed 70 Marysville Getchell students about their mental health in relation to school.

On a scale of one to five, more than 25% of respondents gave the school a one for prioritizing mental health and almost 80% of responses were three or below.

The students “are just sick of the talk and nothing happening,” Dawson told the Daily Herald. “Our school has been like, ‘We care about you, we care about you, we want to help you,’ but then we don’t see it.”

School board president Vanessa Edwards said the candor and detail of the group’s presentation gave the board a unique insight into the minds of Marysville Getchell students.

“There were some uncomfortable (comments) that were said publicly, but those needed to be said, because that is real,” she said.

She is asking board members to strengthen the connections with the schools they represent and plans to host work study groups and community meetings for a wider discussion on the topic.

Last week, the Washington Senate passed Senate Bill 5030 which would mandate school districts to implement a plan for a comprehensive counseling program by the fall of 2022.

The plan must include processes for identifying students’ needs and how assistance will be delivered to students.

School counselors would also be required to spend at least 80% of their time providing services to students, instead of administrative tasks or other non-counseling staff tasks.

The legislation does not provide districts with any additional money to prepare the required plans or add counselors as needed. Funds could be made available in the final state budget.

For now, Thompson said the district is benefiting from a Snohomish County grant to instruct staff on student mental health.

“We are doing the best we can to get people trained and be able to recognize when and how to provide help for students,” he said. “It’s across the board, counselors, teachers and administrative staff, we all have to be a part of that.”

At Marysville Getchell, Zimmerman said a core group of staff was in the learning phase of the instruction.

“If the challenges we have are an iceberg, we are at the tip of the iceberg right now,” he said.

Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; idavisleonard@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.

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