CUSD to address mental health in study session


Just before public comments at a Jan. 18 meeting, CUSD Governing Board Chair Jason Olive said the board plans to hold a study session on mental health among students prior to its regular meeting on Feb. 8.

“Because we’ve been talking about mental health, or listening about mental health, for a long time, instead of having folks come to us and we can’t really have a back-and-forth conversation (during public input at board meetings), next meeting, we’d like to have a study session about mental health, where we can have a back-and-forth and have staff speak about it as well,” Olive said.

Olive made that announcement just before a pair of speakers demanded more action from district administration on multiple fronts.

Chandler High senior Riana Alexander, who has made multiple presentations to the board in public comments, happened to speak first at the Jan. 18 meeting.

She said her organization, AZ Students for Mental Health, and two others are grateful for steps CUSD has recently taken, including recently awarding contracts to three firms to help with a variety of mental health services.

“However, we know mental health is not an issue the district can tackle on its own,” Alexander told the board. “We are asking for a community action advisory board, made up of students and community members, to work with the district to implement critical resources to those suffering from depression, anxiety, ADHD and other mental illnesses ... this board should be in direct communication with the Governing Board and district leadership.”

Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan, of the Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation, said she’s a member of the Valley Interfaith Project. She repeated Alexander’s request for an advisory board to be formed.

“We understand our youth are experiencing an incredible increase in mental health challenges — one that many practitioners consider a crisis,” Oglesby-Dunegan said. “This crisis was already well underway when the (COVID-19) pandemic began, which increased the pressures.”

Oglesby-Dunegan said schools, like congregations, might not be well-equipped to address the mental health deficiencies in Arizona and nationwide.

“But we must act and develop our capacity,” she said. “And to respond differently.”

The majority of the audience in attendance at the Jan. 18 meeting stood in solidarity while both Alexander and Oglesby-Dunegan spoke during public input.
Last year, the district committed $5 million to some mental health initiatives. The Hope Institute of America LLC, Lighthouse Wellhealth and Southwest Behavioral and Health Services were chosen from a field of seven applicants to provide services.

Superintendent Frank Narducci said this was in response to an increase in teen suicides among district students. There were three during a 10-day period in May of last year.

At the board’s November meeting, Dawn Shim of Support Equality Arizona Schools, an organization founded to advocate for minority and LGBTQ students, chided the board for having a national speaker address students at a mental health summit.

“There are local factors to mental health,” Shim said at the meeting. “And you’d know this if you’d actively engage with and invite more students to participate in an event like this.”

Shim told the Independent that she received some positive feedback from teachers for her public words, but no significant dialogue or commitment from CUSD administration or the board.

“It took adults aligning with us and speaking up to make a study session happen,” she said.

The Hamilton High School junior said not only do students want to be included on committees or boards with a voice on well-being issues. She also wants that voice to be heard and to carry weight in terms of the board and administration crafting policy.

“Decisions went to board members as itemized suggestions,” Shim said of her service on a school committee. “So, we get the platitudes and the vague commitments to do more — another method for the district to look like change without meaningful effort.”

Shim, whose SEAZS group can best be found on the Instagram page @supportequalityazsch, said an advisory mental health committee or board that includes students and, preferably, at least one local mental health professional, would be a step in the right direction.

“(Mental health professionals) work for a living and aren’t always able to make afternoon or evening meetings, so we don’t see too many of them advocating in person, but we thank them for their letters, emails and (social media commentary) encouraging action,” Shim said. “We are backed. The solution is to listen to them and others who handle specific minority issues in our community. Asking out-of area pros to come into meetings and to speak to students is not the answer.”

SEAZS, Chandler, CUSD, Chandler school board, Chandler Unified, mental health, Shim, Unitarian Congregation, Oglesby, Narducci, psychiatry, pandemic, depression, anxiety, ADHD