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Guest Editorial: Light in the shadows

Loudoun County is considered one of the richest counties in the state, yet has become one of the deadliest for teens with depression and other mental illnesses. There is strong evidence nationally that a comprehensive community approach is effective in reducing suicide rates, and Loudoun has made progress in steadily ramping up awareness related to identifying students at risk, crisis resources, and mental health providers for students. LCPS has asked for and received more funding for mental health professionals in schools. Funding is one step, but it is not what families who have lived through the hell of a mental health crisis are requesting.

Parents of Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) students who are already under the care of psychologists and/or psychiatrists and have robust support systems in place in the community are seeking protections for at-risk students while they are in school. The protections they are requesting are consistent with those recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Association of School Psychologists, and others who use proven approaches for suicide prevention:

-- Implement mandatory district suicide prevention policies that create a “safety net” for each at-risk student, as recommended by the Suicide Prevention Guidelines from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). VDOE recommends holding a safety net meeting that includes school personnel, a parent, and the child’s mental health provider, if appropriate. Parents can bring recommendations from the child’s psychologist or psychiatrist to the meeting. During the meeting, the interventions needed to help the child are determined, including actions that will be taken immediately to create a safety net around the at-risk child, such as allowing makeup work to be extended without reducing the student’s grades, allowing additional absences for medical appointments, and responding vigilantly to bullying. LCPS should not let each school decide if they will implement the Virginia guidelines, as is currently the practice as explained to us.

--Doctor recommendations for student patients should be adhered to when the safety net plan is created. Currently, some LCPS schools are using an expensive and often lengthy Individualized Education Plan (IEP) evaluation process to determine if a student will receive temporary interventions and/or accommodations - rather than granting the interventions already recommended by the students’ medical specialists. LPCS needs to reverse the process to provide immediate interventions designated as critical for at-risk students first while they determine if the IEP process is needed and then perform it.

--School officials must publish the criteria they use for determining how doctors will be considered “qualified” to render opinions about interventions. While this may seem strange, parents have been told by LCPS administration that their student’s medical specialists are “not qualified to recommend interventions and/or accommodations”. If LCPS will define who is qualified to do so, the safety net team can act immediately to provide the interventions designed by qualified mental health professionals. It is not safe for LCPS leadership to determine that public school system employees must hold responsibility for student mental health when we have a community of qualified professional experts available.

--School administrators should not act as psychiatrists or psychologists. If a recommendation comes from a certified doctor, it should bear more weight in determining interventions for an at-risk student than the recommendation of a guidance counselor or Pupil Services staff. Imagine informing your school and Pupil Services that your child is having suicidal thoughts and is being treated by a professional and hearing in response, “Your child is fine based on our assessment." This is a response that too many parents have heard and it must cease.

Time is not on our side. The rate of suicide attempts and suicides in our county will not decrease while our leaders are studying the crisis. We need to listen to the experts, change our attitudes towards illness such as depression, cut down on the bureaucracy, and use the resources already available to implement actions that can save lives.

Students recovering from crisis deserve policies to support them, and they should be protected against prejudices and ignorance surrounding mental illnesses. We suspect that many people reading this now don’t believe mental illnesses like depression or anxiety are real or understand that they can impact one’s ability to concentrate, learn, and perform. This was once the case with concussions, but the LCPS Athletic concussion guidelines have done much to change this and there are now thorough guidelines for supporting student athletes who suffered concussions. Students experiencing illnesses such as depression deserve the same equal opportunity for an education.

To be clear -- we are not asking for schools to take responsibility for students’ mental health. We are asking our leaders to recognize that schools have a role to play, and what is happening now is often neither compassionate nor effective. Our recommendations are not based on rumors of what is happening, but on first-hand accounts, documents, and audio files – and we are alarmed.

We realize that our requests are not enough and much more needs to be done, but we think this is a place to start. We hold firm to our hope that by working together, we can save student lives.

LEAP is a non-partisan and non-commercial network for interaction among local parent groups, students, teachers, administrators, and the Loudoun County School Board concerning educational issues affecting children and the community.


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