Simle Middle School was selected as the site for a pilot project to identify prevention and early intervention services for students with mental health disorders.
The pilot project aims to bridge the gap between the behavioral health system and schools, and to pinpoint students who are in need of mental health services.
Last year, the state Legislature passed House Bill 1040, which appropriated $150,000 to the state Department of Human Services for the project. A total of 13 schools applied for the grant.
Simle Middle School will use the yearlong grant to implement a screening tool to identify students in need of services, provide other mental health services, as well as bring in a clinical psychologist. Simle principal Russ Riehl says he hopes to start the project within the next month.
Riehl, who has been principal at Simle for 15 years, said four years ago Bismarck middle schools and high schools were trained on a process called multi-tiered systems of support, which identifies struggling students and offers interventions.
At Simle, staff looked at what interventions were working and found there are students who need mental health services that the school cannot provide. Also, there are students who need services but are falling through the cracks.
"We thought, how can we do the things we're doing, but also expand that more in terms of helping families and helping kids that maybe have deeper needs than what traditional schools can provide?" he said.
There also are students who may not be at-risk, but are internalizing their emotions and have depression, anxiety or other disorders.
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"We really want to try to understand that better so we help all kids and not just those students who are acting out," Riehl said.
The pilot project is a partnership between the school and the Department of Human Services, which will be providing technical assistance, to better meet the needs of students.
"Education is a different world from behavioral health, and yet we need to partner in order to really be able to identify the kids that have the highest needs," said Pam Sagness, director of the behavioral health division for the Department of Human Services.
Riehl says, with the grant, he plans to identify "innovative" ways to help students, such as through physical education and occupational therapy, as well as provide additional teacher training to understand how to help struggling students. Currently, the school has a part-time social worker, but has never had a clinical psychologist.
The pilot project is an extension of current programs in Bismarck Public Schools. This year, Bismarck High School brought in contracted clinical psychologists to the school. Also, the Bismarck School Board set aside $1.4 million to address school safety and school-based mental health services.
Ben Johnson, the district's assistant superintendent for secondary schools, said, while the district has already been doing some preventative and proactive work related to behavioral health, there is more that could be done.
"I think there is a shortage (of services) across our state and here, as well," Johnson said. "I think (the pilot project) is a great way to bridge some of that and meet kids and families where they are."
At the end of the Simle project, Sagness said staff members will evaluate the data they found and use that information to help other schools. In the application for the pilot project, schools were required to identify how they will sustain services.
Riehl said he hopes the project can "find some efficiencies," related to cost and time, and leverage the school's current resources to sustain support and services.
Sagness said the Department of Human Services will provide an update on the project and outcomes this upcoming legislative session.
(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)