Kids across the state are struggling. Has Morgan County’s school system found a solution?
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Written & photographed by Pam Kasey
The first thing Pastor Howard Swick did when he heard Philip Barbour High School was on lockdown was check on his daughters. They were both safe—they’d been evacuated that afternoon, with 700 others, to the football field. The second thing he did was drive over to the school. A member of his youth ministry at Haven of Hope Worship Center in Philippi was holding a .38 on a roomful of his classmates.
It was August 25, 2015, not two weeks into the school year. Swick arrived to flashing lights all around, local and state police vehicles along with emergency responders. “I told people at the scene, ‘I can help—if you can get me to him, I can help,’” he told MetroNews Talkline with Hoppy Kercheval the next day. The policemen negotiating at the classroom door knew Swick as the boy’s pastor, so law enforcement walked him through the empty school to the closed room. “It was kind of surreal. You don’t expect to walk in a hallway of a school where you’ve got so many police officers with guns and the Kevlar vests and stuff,” Swick told Kercheval.
World Studies teacher Twila Smith had by that time persuaded the 14-year-old to release his 27 classmates. He was alone now and threatening to turn the gun on himself. He looked relieved to see his pastor, by Swick’s account. They talked for five or 10 minutes. Then Swick told him, “This is how it’s going to end: You will put the gun down, I will come in, I will give you a hug, and I will personally walk you into an ambulance.”
And that’s exactly how what could have become the first school shooting in West Virginia in nearly 40 years ended. The boy took the clip out of the gun, laid it on the teacher’s desk, and opened the door. Swick wrapped his arms around him. The FBI cuffed him. And they walked together to an ambulance.
As it happened, Swick had learned just the day before that the boy was being bullied. In the lunchroom, one of his daughters, a senior, had stepped between him and three boys. “Basically threatening him. They were pretty big boys,” he told Kercheval. “My daughter said, ‘I just saw something in his eyes and I thought, Oh my god, he’s about to snap.’” The boy had been afraid for a while but struggled in isolation, unable to find a way to tell a teacher or school counselor or even his pastor.
Youth mental health services in West Virginia are in a widely acknowledged crisis. A lack of early-intervention services leaves kids who struggle—with anxiety, say, or depression, or substance abuse—to deteriorate. Some families manage in isolation. Others fail, and their children end up in the state’s care at more than three times the national rate, recent reports show.
The state, in turn, falls back on group care. More than 1,000 of the state’s children are institutionalized at any one time. It’s an extreme practice that allows—some say requires—problems to become enormous before attending to them. “West Virginia has built its entire children’s mental health system … around placement in segregated residential treatment facilities,” wrote the U.S. Department of Justice in June 2015, condemning the failure and calling for the creation of community-based services that strengthen families. “The unnecessary segregation of children with mental health conditions violates their civil rights and wastes the state’s scal resources.” Those resources totalled $67 million in the 2011-12 scal year, more than $1 million per county.
As this issue goes to print, the state Bureau for Children and Families has begun demonstrating a partial, top-down solution. Its program Safe at Home, already in preparation when the Department of Justice report was released, is targeted to youth ages 12-17 who are institutionalized or at risk of being institutionalized. It got started October 1 in 11 counties.
Meanwhile, though, Morgan County in the Eastern Panhandle is piecing together an increasingly complete, bottom-up solution. Its countywide experiment in compassionate care is holistic, affordable, and replicable. And it’s gone on long enough that we can just start to see the difference it’s making.
Shelter, Food, Belonging
Walkie-talkies squawk into a morning meeting in Principal Dudley Cable’s office. “FLEX B-100 PLEASE.” Staff sitting around Cable’s round conference table at Warm Springs Intermediate School barely blink as Lewis Elias, the slender, energetic school counselor, slips out toward room B-100. His voice squawks back through the radios left in the room: “RESPONDING.”
The call, from a fifth grade teacher, came because a student had his head down on his desk and was missing an entire lesson. Elias escorts the boy into the hallway and learns his stomach hurts—he usually eats breakfast at school but got in late. “He thought he couldn’t get breakfast at 7:40,” Elias says later. “I gave him some crackers. He’ll probably be able to do his work now.”
When Cable was first assistant principal here in 2008 he spent his days crisscrossing the airy, modern school, putting out disciplinary fires. Kids fidgeted days away in chairs lining the hallways, where he’d moved them when they’d become too unruly. “They weren’t getting education and there was no monitoring or remediation—it was just a warehouse,” Cable says, looking harried even at the memory of it. “And that was 100 percent of my day.”
The radios changed all that. Toted now by everyone from principal to custodian at the Berkeley Springs school for third- through fifth-graders, they’re part of a local innovation known as Flexible Classroom. Any time a student has trouble, the adult in charge can call for an assist. A responder might relieve a teacher while she takes two students into the hallway to resolve a dispute. He might pull a belligerent student into the flex classroom for an hour or a day to get sorted out. Or she might just brainstorm with a kid who can’t think of an essay topic and is known to be in a fragile state. Supportive rather than punitive, the interventions often uncover causes—anything from nightmares last night, to Mom and Dad are fighting, to Grandma died. By acknowledging the frustrations behind students’ misbehavior, they defuse emotions that can otherwise spin out of control.
“It’s hard to learn on an empty stomach,” says Morgan County Schools Social Worker Gary McDaniel, back on the subject of the morning’s radio call. A joyful bear of a man who tops his graying curls with a bowler hat, he’s a main architect of the school system’s common-sense mental health interventions, which have few parallels in West Virginia. “You gotta meet the fundamental needs first. School isn’t shelter, food, belonging—but it can help with those things, if we let it. Then we can teach and kids can learn.” Quiet hallways and kids who wave from the cafeteria line when their principal walks by seem to suggest McDaniel is onto something.
Families Can’t Do It All
David Banks aimed to bring standardized test scores up when he was principal at Warm Springs Middle School in the early aughts. Remedial groups and after-school tutoring helped. But over time, those things helped less and less. “Something else was contributing to low academic performance. I could see it,” says Banks, a crisp dresser with ice-blue eyes. Eight years now in the superintendent’s position he’s still not 50, and his reputation of out-working the people around him—he’s also president of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators—is borne out in his alert, restless presence.
Banks saw the problem grow after he switched over to county school board administration in 2004. Free and reduced lunch rates climbed, sign of a deteriorating economy. Attendance suffered. And stories of kids missing school because Dad was in jail and Mom was on drugs became common. By the time Banks rose to superintendent in 2007—just as the housing crisis hit the economy hard—principals were telling him they had discipline problems like they’d never seen. Tutoring wasn’t enough anymore, he says. “The mental health of our students was impacting achievement more than their skills were.”
In less than a decade, Banks had seen the fabric of the sleepy community where he’d grown up unraveled by recession and by drugs from Baltimore. He’s since seen the fallout on elementary school walls, in kindergarten family photographs that used to look like iconic American households. “I noticed last year the photographs are telling a different story,” he says. “I saw kindergartners with very, very young parents and kindergartners with many times just one parent. And probably the thing I saw the most was kindergartners with grandparents. Or one grandparent.”
Soon after Banks became superintendent in 2007, he used county excess levy funds to hire McDaniel. It was, and remains, rare in this state for a school system to hire someone dedicated solely to student mental health, and the county school board wasn’t immediately sure. “It was hard to believe in 2008 that helping students with their mental health was necessary,” Banks says. “Many were still under the impression that was the job of the parents.” But the displacement eventually represented by those too-young parents, single parents, and grandparents filling in as parents wasn’t yet fully recognized. “‘Well, we can just say it’s the job of the parents,’” Banks remembers telling his board, “‘or we can step in and help.’ That’s how the idea of hiring Gary was sold.”
To meet its mission of helping kids learn and thrive, Morgan County’s school system has increasingly had to help those stressed caregivers parent, Banks says. That sometimes goes right down to the basics. “We just have to get in the middle of those families and get them the help they need. Which can mean driving them to see a therapist or get medications. We do things like that all the time.”
Counselors Can’t Do It All
Middle school is a turbulent place. Kids struggle with the physical and emotional upheavals of puberty. They test their places in the social hierarchy, sometimes aggressively. They turn toward the wider world. At Warm Springs Middle School, all that is reflected in School Counselor Patty Byrne’s survey of counseling needs. Mother of an infant, she shares the survey results with enthusiasm, even while gloating about the previous night’s four-and-a-half hours of sleep. Sixth and seventh graders say their top need is getting along better with family members, she says. Eighth graders want help with confidence and self-expression.
Last year, her first at Warm Springs, Byrne created a Bullying Prevention Council of students elected by their peers. The group wrote a skit to educate fellow students about sprigeo.com, an anonymous bullying reporting app the school system uses. It took its skit to the intermediate school, too. This year, she re-established a peer mediation group that’s been dormant. “I’ve only had this in action a couple weeks and I’ve already had nine peer mediations performed,” she said in late September.
Currently a group of about 20, the peer mediators are seventh and eighth graders recommended by teachers and elected by peers. They get training and ongoing supervision. “Two of them sit down with two students who are in a conflict, usually younger than themselves: ‘He stared at me’ and ‘She took my pencil,’” Byrne says.
She flips through a binder of mediations she’s logged. “They’re not supposed to give advice; they’re supposed to help the students solve the problems themselves. So, here, a couple students were joking around and hurt each other’s feelings. ‘Watch my language and be less rowdy’ was the solution.” Peer mediation frees Byrne up for more serious matters. “And it’s good for the students,” she says. “They’re learning to resolve conflict themselves. They’re growing as leaders.”
The turbulence can get too real, though, and schools are challenged to handle it. Last school year, Byrne’s assessments found 39 students actively harming themselves or at risk for suicide, in addition to seven she’d already been aware of—nearly 10 percent of the school. “I always tell the parents to remove all sharp objects, leave the bathroom door open, don’t have any razor blades available. Sometimes I get teachers involved to look out for certain students,” she says. “Sometimes I do counsel them a couple times. But I can’t give them therapy.” School counselors identify problems and teach skills, under the guidelines of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), but they’re supposed to refer serious cases to outside mental health professionals. Yet in many parts of West Virginia, Berkeley Springs included, therapy outside school isn’t available nearby, or in a reasonable time frame, or affordably.
This year, though, Byrne can refer within the school system, an advance that builds on a previous advance. Two years ago, the youth-focused nonprofit Morgan County Partnership got a three-year grant to support social worker Wendy Baracka in substance abuse screening interviews and counseling in grades 6 through 12. “This is a different sort of approach than some of the ‘abstinence–just say no–avoid substance use’ awareness programs used in schools,” Baracka says of the work she’s done for the past two years. She’s early in her career but radiates compassion and competence. “That’s the message to start with. But when we get to the point where students are choosing to use, we come in with this next level of messages: If you’re going to make this choice, here’s some information that could benefit you—like, do you have a plan for a safe ride home? My philosophy is, I have some skills and knowledge and they have some skills and knowledge—and they also have the expertise of what it’s like to be a 12-year-old, a 15-year-old, a 17-year-old right now.”
This year, thanks to a new grant, Baracka is able to offer students a broader range of services. “I’m providing screening for mental health issues we commonly see in the school setting including depression, anxiety, and history of trauma, with a component for substance-use risk,” she says. She’s also available now as a first- level referral for Byrne and other school counselors. Another social worker will be hired into the third year of the grant she worked on previously—all part of the county’s slow but steady increase in services for students.
“When Patty gets in over her head, there’s got to be someone she can call,” McDaniel says of Byrne and other school counselors. He puts the increase in services in context. ASCA recommends one counselor for 250 students; Warm Springs Intermediate has just Byrne for nearly 500. One social worker is recommended for 800 students; with the addition of Baracka, the county now has two for 2,600 and so should have a third. A psychologist is recommended to every 1,000 students and, with two as of last year, the county is close. “Most schools in West Virginia, there is nobody. When I first came here there was nobody. We’ve had to build the services up because there’s woefully little otherwise.”
The Widest Safety Net
When Michael Wilder arrived at Berkeley Springs High School in 2004, he was tasked with raising math scores on standardized tests. Once a math professor at West Virginia University, Wilder had switched to public education and earned a doctorate in math curriculum and instruction. “I went classroom to classroom here, did observations, and found out there was a kid in every room who was disrupting the teacher. So we came up with this plan to get them out of the classroom,” he says: a parallel Alternative School. “And then we couldn’t get anybody to run it.” So the former math professor became an alternative education teacher.
A burly man with a ready grin and blunt language, Wilder casts a wide, final safety net for kids who haven’t been helped by any earlier measure. This year, he teaches 48 students who were at high risk of being expelled or dropping out. He divides students into two groups, more- and less-aggressive, and keeps them separate. “You don’t want to put the bullies with the ones who’ve been bullied all their lives,” he says. Because there’s only one of him, students work three days at home on their computers and two days at school.
He tells a story about the insufficiency of formal mental health services. A student became agitated during an anti-drug presentation and threatened the invited speaker. Wilder pulled him aside and called his mother in and, after a tearful meeting, it was agreed the student would get counseling. But then it was a three-month wait for an appointment at the local mental health clinic.
A counselor in town offered to see him for free once a week in the meantime, one of the myriad ways the community has stepped up. “He finally gets into his appointment and you know what they offer him? One hour, once a month,” Wilder says. “That was supposed to be his counseling.” So the counselor in town continues to see the young man every other week and Wilder spends a lot of one-on-one time with him, including visiting the family regularly. “In order to help this extreme case I have to recognize that I’m losing the opportunity to help other less extreme student cases. Lack of time.” He shakes his head in frustration. “But today, you wouldn’t recognize that kid. He’s a changed person. Doing great.”
Wilder gushes proud anecdotes, like the one about the girl with the terrible home life who ran off to Florida in ninth grade, then came back two years later when she realized she couldn’t get a job without a diploma—only to be turned away from her school after so much time. Wilder secretly helped her finish two years of schoolwork in one year, then persuaded the principal to enroll her so she could get the credits and finish. Now she’s a successful high school graduate.
He also tells about the 6’2″, 240-pound boy who wanted to be a cage fighter, whose dad told him to spend a few years in prison if he really wanted to toughen up. He was a difficult case, but Wilder—a former assistant football coach who remarks that he’s sometimes the smallest guy in the room—and others worked hard with him, and today he’s a guard in the corrections system. “And he really wants to be a state policeman,” Wilder says. His stories express amazement at what kids can overcome with caring support. “I’m not a psychologist, but I treat the kids like they’ve never been treated before,” he says. “We can get them so they’re not full of hatred. So they like coming to school.”
A pet project of Wilder’s last year affirmed everything he feels he’s learned. “Sometimes the middle school tells us to put kids coming up from there into Alternative School because they’re violent or they’re into drugs. I hate to take them when they’re that young, though—I’d rather give them a chance in the regular classroom first.” He worked with McDaniel to get an unpaid social work intern to meet with each of six students a couple hours a week through the school year. “Not one of those kids ended up in Alternative School,” he nods. “That’s a 100 percent success rate, just by having a little TLC during the school year. We’re onto something there. You can punish kids, you can try to rehabilitate kids—but it’s so much easier to keep them from having to be rehabilitated.”
Schools Can Be the Hub
For all his work in the school system, Gary McDaniel is also part of a larger, countywide network of compassion. That includes the county’s Handle With Care team, part of the growing statewide program in which law enforcement lets school officials know when a student’s family has had an incident and the student might need a little slack. There’s the Morgan County Partnership that, among other things, coordinates Teen Court, which allows young offenders to opt to receive community-service sentences from their peers, then calls the offenders to jury duty themselves. Starting Points taps an extensive network of donors when a family has a need for anything from a double stroller to a gas card. The active Multidisciplinary Investigative Team at the county prosecutor’s office shares information related to physical and sexual abuse cases for better child outcomes. And many local school business partners offer time, money, goods, and services to enrich students’ days. McDaniel stays connected with all of this because, ultimately, it all supports student mental wellness.
He also teaches for West Virginia University in Martinsburg specifically in order to raise trained mental health professionals up into the system. Over the years he’s helped get former students into several positions in the county, Baracka among them.
McDaniel emphasizes the broadly cooperative nature of what’s being done in the county. But, given scarce resources, he also makes a case for centering it all in the school system. “This is where the kids are,” he says. “When I worked in a community mental health setting, I had no-shows all the time. Car broke down, people don’t have money to put gas in the car, or they just can’t get organized to make an appointment. They have a lot of crises that happen. When you’re living on that poverty line, life doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d like. But when I work in the schools I have a zero no-show rate.”
A decade or so in, signs say the efforts are making a difference. Morgan County Partnership administers the widely used Pride and 40 Developmental Assets student surveys to fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth graders every two years. Trends from 2011 to 2013 show most “external assets”—things like positive family communication, positive peer influence, and caring school climate—rising. Internal assets like peaceful conflict resolution, planning and decision- making, and self-esteem are rising, too. “This shows, within a two-year time frame, we’re doing something right,” says Shamus Cleveland, internal evaluator for the partnership. Measures that fell short, like adult role models and sense of purpose, show the organization and its partners what kinds of programs are still needed.
Graduation is also fundamental evidence, McDaniel says. Even as Morgan County’s free and reduced lunch rate has climbed—indicator of stressors that often lead kids to drop out—its high school graduation rate soared between 2009 and 2014, from 74 percent to nearly 93 percent, taking the county from 39th in the state to 4th. That’s years ahead of a national goal of graduating 90 percent of students by 2020.
We’re not seeing the full benefit yet. Kids who were in third grade when the intermediate school Flexible Classroom got started won’t graduate until 2018. That’s when the character of kids who’ve grown up with a decade of school-based supports will become apparent. And the benefits will continue to grow. Starting in 2013, McDaniel added a half-time counseling intern working at an elementary school. This year’s intern conducts crisis interventions every day, often for serious cases of abuse and neglect.
So much more can be done, Superintendent Banks says. “We’re still not even close to where we need to be to meet the needs of our kids. Not even close.” But people are feeling the momentum. Early on, school board members would complain when teachers were let go due to budget cuts while McDaniel was kept on. Now that they’re seeing results, Banks says, they would suggest letting teachers go before McDaniel.
Wilder, at Berkeley Springs High School, feels hopeful. “When you look at the school violence and school shootings everywhere, in every case, somebody knew something but nothing was done,” he says. “They knew the kid was upset, they knew there was bullying going on, the kid was unstable. I really think our group here has a big part of the answer to preventing this violence. We identify these kids and, before it gets really bad, we get them into a program. We have the answer in place to stop these terrible things from happening.”
It’s obvious to McDaniel. “If we don’t meet kids’ developmental needs early we will have to figure out how to manage them as dysfunctional, problematic, unprepared adults, and then deal with a repeat of the same problems in the next generation of kids,” he says. “If we provide them with the attention, support, boundaries, and love they need to develop well, our community will reap the bounty of sturdy young people who are prepared for life.”