Michigan schools expand mental health services in wake of Oxford school shooting

This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

While the COVID-19 pandemic’s general impact on Michiganders’ mental health has sparked widespread conversation about the need for more mental health services in schools, last year's mass shooting at Oxford High School brought new urgency to the issue. Oxford Community Schools have introduced a host of new mental health supports – even as the state of Michigan itself prepares to make an unprecedented investment in school-based mental health services.

Now at the forefront of integrating mental health supports into schools, Oxford Community Schools have launched a number of initiatives that not only address the trauma their students have experienced but also provide a mental health safety net for all moving forward.

"The health and safety of our students and staff is Oxford Community Schools’ first priority, which is why we have focused on several different mental health supports, including curriculum-based supports and staff supports," says Todd Barlass, Oxford Community Schools' executive director of student services and wellness. "We will really continue to develop our social-emotional learning curriculum, at the kindergarten level all the way through our secondary and our 12th grade classrooms. And that's an ongoing process."

Todd Barlass.Hired in July 2022, Barlass has participated in the Michigan Department of Education's (MDE) social-emotional learning (SEL) initiative since its launch in 2016. SEL’s five core competencies include expanding student skills related to self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and social awareness.

"As we look at targeting those specific areas, we try to use some of our other platforms around restorative practices and trauma-informed practices to make sure that we're reinforcing each of those five areas," Barlass says.

Barlass says the district encourages teachers and staff to participate in SEL trainings, but it's also forged numerous partnerships and added staff to meet the district's mental health needs. The district consults with Dr. Jim Henry, founder and director of the Children's Trauma Assessment Center at Western Michigan University, where he and his colleagues have helped thousands of traumatized children. Easterseals provided its eight-hour Youth Mental Health First Aid training to Oxford staff last spring. The county regional services district, Oakland Schools, has provided consultants to support Oxford staff with integrating restorative practices, trauma-informed practices, and SEL into the curriculum at all levels. A trauma-informed clinician serves as a recovery coordinator, and a restorative practice coordinator ensures that teachers have the capacity to integrate restorative practices into their daily lesson planning. And the district has expanded the number of family-school liaisons in the district’s elementary schools, middle school, and high school.

"They really maintain that connection between school and home," Barlass says. "They also support some of our tier-one interventions at the classroom level with our students. So they've been a great addition."

Todd Barlass. As the district continues to examine how it can support staff in identifying students’ mental health needs, the importance of student-led and student-driven initiatives has been recognized as key to helping students access services for themselves and their peers. For example, student representatives from Oxford Community Schools will attend the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals Student Mental Health Summit in Lansing next month.

"It will be great having them face to face at the summit, growing their confidence in their ability to be familiar with some of those mental health components in the schools," Barlass says.

In addition to all of these supports, Oxford Community Schools has introduced therapy dogs into its schools: two at the district's high school, one at its middle school, and three at its elementary schools. The district ultimately plans on creating a "District Dog Pack" of 11 therapy dogs, and is training staff to handle the animals.

"The kids absolutely love it," Barlass says. "... It’s a great support."

Jake, Birmingham Public Schools' new therapy dog, with Haven Zawaideh, a 7th grader at Derby Middle School.Oxford Community Schools is not alone in introducing therapy dogs into its schools. Birmingham Public Schools recently welcomed Jake, an English labrador retriever, to support Derby Middle School’s 700 students. Bloomfield Hills SchoolsBrighton Area SchoolsClarkston Community Schools, and Escanaba Area Public Schools are among the many other Michigan districts using therapy dogs to help students with SEL needs. 

TRAILS leads students to balanced mental health

Oxford Community Schools and most other Michigan districts recognize that integrating SEL into school curriculums, from pre-K through 12th grade, is one way to boost students’ mental health and reduce the likelihood of violent incidents at school. One readily available SEL resource for Michigan schools is the University of Michigan (U-M)-based TRAILS (Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students) program. TRAILS provides state-funded training and curricula to help teachers, school mental health professionals, social workers, and counselors share a wide variety of skills that help students recognize and regulate emotions, as well as manage conflicts with friends and classmates. TRAILS curricula are designed to require minimal prep time for teachers, and TRAILS' website also offers resources that school mental health providers can use for delivering individual or group services.

"The materials for classrooms align in content with the content for school mental health providers," says Elizabeth Koschmann, director of TRAILS and research investigator at the U-M Department of Psychiatry. "By aligning curriculum with what happens in more intensive services, kids get better, more consistent care. And teachers can reinforce what kids learn with their social worker, counselor, or psychologist."

Elizabeth Koschmann. TRAILS also trains qualified mental health providers from community mental health and private practices to mentor teachers and school mental health professionals as they incorporate SEL into their schools and classrooms.

"It's really important to remember that mental illness is incredibly common. In schoolchildren, even one school shooting is too many incidents, but these are rare," Koschmann says. "While mental health care is important in violence prevention, the overwhelming majority of kids with mental health issues will never engage in a significant act of violence. It's important to acknowledge that. We don't want to target kids as being likely to commit an act of violence. We do want to help them connect to their schools, feel supported, recognize those who are struggling early, and link them to effective care."

State bolstering school safety with additional funds

Ensuring that Michigan’s children have access to mental health supports at school has become a priority for MDE as well as the school districts it serves. Michigan's fiscal year 2023 education budget earmarks an unprecedented $214 per pupil for mental health and school safety funding in every public school district.
Diane Golzynski.
"In school year 2018-2019, we saw the first state investment in direct services for students at schools, allowing schools to hire professionals to meet the mental health needs of our students. That number has grown every year," says Diane Golzynski, director of the MDE Office of Health and Nutrition Services. "This year, for the first time, $150 million is allocated to school districts."

In addition to funding mental health supports, the new state budget also provides dollars for school districts to improve safety at their buildings. That includes door alarms, security cameras, school safety assessments, and critical incident mapping, i.e., a map of the school that also uses common language for room designations that can be easily communicated during a crisis.

However, helping all students achieve mental health is the real key to school safety, not only for preventing the very rare incidence of a shooting, but to prevent behaviors like bullying, identify children with trauma-related behaviors, and support children experiencing even mild depression and anxiety.

"Some people want school to be about reading, writing, and math," Golzynski says. "They're completely forgetting that a child is a whole person. We have to take care of the whole person in order for them to be the best academically, which then determines their future."

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.

Todd Barlass photos by Steve Koss. Elizabeth Koschmann portrait by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography. Diane Golyznski photo courtesy of Diane Golzynski.