Superintendent’s Community Report | Students face a behavioral crisis – Santa Cruz Sentinel

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It would certainly be a relief if time were all our students needed to fully recover from the impacts of the pandemic. But this is not the reality we are seeing.

Students are facing significant and, in some respects, growing challenges this year, particularly when it comes to behavioral issues and mental health. This was true before the recent mass-shooting hoax and subsequent online threat involving one of our local high schools — and those incidents and their impacts to students’ sense of safety only underscore what we have been seeing. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say there is a behavioral crisis developing in our schools.

Faris Sabbah
Faris Sabbah

What does that mean? At a fundamental level, students are communicating to us that they’re in distress. This happens in several ways. Some communicate by telling us, some engage in self-destructive behaviors such as substance use, and some act out or become aggressive. These latter two categories are of particular concern, and we are seeing them become increasingly common.

School staff are going above and beyond to address these behaviors while delivering excellent education each day. But they need more support — institutional, as well as from our parents and community. Whenever a crisis presents itself in our schools, we share a collective responsibility to step up and help, if we are in a position to do so.

Recognizing this issue, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and school districts recently launched a partnership with United Way of Santa Cruz County, Public Health, Monarch Services, and Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance to build a coalition of partners capable of offering our students and schools the support they need. We are calling this a Community Resiliency Initiative, and it includes three core components: awareness, capacity and belonging.

Raising awareness about the extent of these issues in our schools is one important step, of which this column is one small piece. We’ll be proactive with outreach in the months ahead and are building a website with targeted resources and information as one way to provide support.

Building capacity among both youth and adults is also key. We are working to define and implement additional layers of training and support to give both groups more tools to identify and intervene with warning signs of mental health challenges, substance abuse, violence and bullying. One of our approaches is working to offer a Teen Mental Health First Aid training program at all high schools in the county.

Additionally, we will continue working to increase belonging and healing spaces for our youth. Our plan to open a wellness center on every high school campus, which I have previously discussed here, is one important piece of this work. We’re working on ways to further expand these spaces with increased mentorship, leadership and events.

Behavior is not the only challenge our students are facing. We are only now beginning to understand the full extent of learning loss resulting from the pandemic, losses that underscore existing inequities. Recently released state data from the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) makes this clear.

In Santa Cruz County, students meeting or exceeding state English standards fell to about 44%, a drop of nearly 4% since 2019, the last year for which the full assessments were conducted. The number of students meeting math standards fell to 30% in the same period, a drop of about 5%. Both declines are in line with the statewide trend. Those interested in exploring the local data can sort by district and demographic at the COE Data Portal, dataportal.santacruzcoe.org.

These impacts are significant, and a call to action. At the same time we need to be cautious about jumping to conclusions about their causes. For instance, we know well that remote learning did not work as well for all of our students, particularly underserved students. This is a reasonable place to point to as a contributor to learning loss for those students for whom it was less effective. Yet compared to other states, California had among the least learning lost during the pandemic despite one of the nation’s longest periods of remote learning. This highlights the nuanced and far-reaching nature of the pandemic’s impacts.

As educators, we seek to teach the whole child and understand that these issues – behavior, mental health, motivation, equity, and achievement – are inextricably linked. Backed by decades of behavioral research, we know all too well that when any student acts out, it is reflective of an unmet need. When many students act out, we can conclude that need is far-reaching within our community.

So many signals are telling us that we must intervene, and it is our responsibility as educators, parents, and a community, to listen and respond. We’ll be sharing more information about the Community Resiliency Initiative soon. The best way to keep informed is by subscribing to the COE’s weekly newsletter at sccoe.link/newsletter.

The Superintendent’s Community Report is a Sunday column written by Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah. He can be reached at [email protected] or at santacruzcoe.org. He can also be reached on Facebook at facebook.com/SantaCruzCOE and on Twitter at twitter.com/SCSupt.