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Westmoreland students don't have far to go for help

| Monday, Oct. 27, 2003

A freshman with a learning disability had such a messy locker and backpack that he couldn't keep track of his books and assignments.

Another boy assaulted a classmate.

A very young elementary student wrote a story about "accidentally shooting" someone.

Their behaviors caught their teachers' attention and, with parental approval, the children were counseled through school-based mental health programs. They were able to receive help right there at their schools.

"We're putting the treatment where they are," said Marlene Cavicchio, a school-based mental health therapist from Latrobe Area Hospital, which offers services in the Greater Latrobe, Derry Area, Mount Pleasant and Southmoreland school districts.

She was a panelist at the Mental Health Association in Westmoreland County's recent annual conference at Seton Hill University, in Greensburg. Part of its focus was a "where are we now?" update on their first partnership in 1965 that challenged the community to create a better mental system.

This year's event was based on the New Freedom Commission of Mental Health, announced last year by President George Bush.

After conducting national research, the commission published a report recommending how communities can implement or improve mental health services. One concentration was on what schools can do.

"The mission of public schools is to educate all students, but students with serious emotional disorders have the highest rate of school failure," said forum speaker Gordon A. Raley, vice president of federal partnerships with the National Mental Health Association in Alexandria, Va.

Those children may become discipline problems, fail academically, skip classes and eventually drop out.

"Growing evidence shows that school mental health programs improve those outcomes," he said, "and schools are in key positions to identify those problems early and to provide a link to appropriate services."

Districts in Westmoreland County already have responded with programs unheard of 35 years ago.

One is the Student Assistance Teams program, which has spread beyond the state mandate to have them in secondary schools.

"We are trying to implement it from kindergarten to 12th grade so that there are no gaps in the system," said Donna Kean, executive director of St. Vincent College Prevention Programs.

Kean was hired as the agency's SAT coordinator in 1989, and helped to push Westmoreland County to the top of the state's list of school district involvement.

SAT offers identification, support and referral services for students experiencing behavioral problems that may come to the attention of parents, teachers, administrators, guidance counselors or school nurses. Parental approval is required for this and all other school-based programs.

"The Student Assistance Teams are the first step in the mental health cycle," said Lyn Marchwinski, manager of Student Assistance Services of Family Services of Western Pennsylvania in New Kensington, which has programs in the Burrell, Kiski and New Kensington-Arnold school districts.

"The people in the schools get to see the kids day in and day out, and they can help to identify the problem if something is going on beyond childhood behavior."

Some students may be recommended for additional services for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, pervasive development disorder, depression, anxiety and other diagnoses often treated in private or clinical settings.

"We are putting it where they are and making it more affordable, accessible and acceptable," Cavicchio said.

"This is also very time-efficient. Instead of a child missing a lot of school to go to an (outside) appointment, they're going to miss only 20 to 30 minutes."

Receiving services at school also makes treatment more acceptable by removing the stigma that some people feel in visiting a clinic, she added.

"We have a captive audience," Dennis Coppula, director of Derry Area School District's special services, said about the convenience of providing on-site help. "And we get to see some remarkable changes in the students' behavior, their attendance, and their grades."

Kurt Holzer, outpatient therapist and student program liaison from Westmoreland Regional Hospital, works with the Greensburg Salem School District. "There are a lot of issues (with students), like divorce, foster care, peer issues, and dysfunctional families that don't know what to do," he said.

Holzer counseled an angry boy who was behaving impulsively.

"I don't want to talk to you," the boy said, and for a while he stared at the floor while they sat in silence. "Sometimes one of the best things to do is not talk at all," Holzer said. "Then I told him, 'I'm not mad at you.' I told him that it was OK to have a temper, and it was OK to sometimes melt down."

The student looked up with tears in his eyes and began to talk about his family's problems the night before.

"We looked at what he had control over, and what he didn't have control over," Holzer said.

He told the boy that even on the worst days, it wasn't going to always be this way.

Concerning the boy who wrote the story about "accidentally shooting" a man, Holzer said, "You read that kind of stuff and say 'OK, how far can this go?' What's the potential here?"

Sometimes students' physical problems are misdiagnosed as behavior issues. According to Kelly Huss, behavior specialist with the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit, the social deficits of students in the high functioning spectrum of autism, Asperger's syndrome and pervasive development disorders may get them labeled as odd, rude and uncooperative. They may unknowingly invade other people's personal space or say embarrassing things.

"They have a difficult time understanding another's perspective," Huss said at the workshop on strategies in classroom management.

Many are bright and even gifted, but still struggle with relationships.

"They have trouble with communication, with sharing and taking turns and in following simple rules," said Sandy Janus, the IU's school psychologist and behavior analyst. "They may lack verbal and nonverbal skills, such as if somebody makes a face, they can look at that face and not know what it means."

They may take things so literally that people think they are being deliberately obnoxious. One time a boy picked up his chair when the teacher told him to "take your seat."

Everyone laughed and thought he was being the class clown when he was doing only what he thought he was told to do.

The boy with the messy locker gained more control with a labeled box storage system. In a video, he explained how and why that helped him to keep everything more organized.

"It was put in a visual format, and there was a self-evaluation sheet and positive reinforcement," Huss said.

The IU specialists help school staffs to formulate and implement individualized plans for students in the county's school districts, and at Clairview School, which the IU operates for special needs students.

There are even more school-based programs on the horizon.

According to Dr. William Bush, a licensed psychologist and supervisor of the IU's special education, the unit is negotiating a new program between RESOLVE of Easton, and the New Kensington/Arnold, Kiski, Franklin Regional and Burrell school districts.

"It will provide psychological counseling, and we are hoping to get some offshoots," said Bush, who will be its clinical director. "We will be looking at things like running a summer therapeutic program for kids, and offering work with juvenile and child abuse cases."

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