The number of Anniston public school students referred for mental health service has more than doubled in the last three school years.
Speaking to the Board of Education this week about the rising number of students seeking that service, Sonja George, Anniston City Schools mental health coordinator, said that there is, however, a stigma attached to the concept of mental health care.
“They don’t hear the word health, they just hear the word mental and so most of them say, ‘Ms. George, that’s just being crazy,’ well you know the reality is that’s not true,” she said.
George said according to the CDC, mental health includes a person’s emotional, psychological and social well-being affecting how a person acts, thinks and feels.
During the 2020-2021 school year, she said, a total of 70 students were referred for mental health services. In the 2021-2022 school year the number of students were 124 and during the current school year the number of students needing mental health services were up to 150.
George spelled out how a student is identified as having issues.
“A referral can come from a teacher, any faculty or staff but typically they process them through our student counselor’s office,” George said.
The parents or guardian have to give consent to the school system for the student to receive mental health services, George said. She said she would then consult with Highland Health Services in Anniston so the family would go to the mental health center and a case would be open so services could be given to the child.
If the family needed support in the home including utilities, clothing or food George would go to community partners to help them.
Robert Houston, Anniston school board president, said there is a mental health crisis in the nation brought on by the pandemic.
“All this disorderly conduct that we see in the school system right now, it’s not just in Anniston, it’s across the country,” Houston said.
Houston held up his cell phone to make a point.
“Our children have been on lockdown for two and a half years so now they have to go back to school. One of the things they did on lockdown, this became their babysitter, their baby, their friend, their everything,” he said.
Houston said that when the kids came back to school they had to put their phones on a tray.
“They have become addicted to these phones so they’re having withdrawal systems,” Houston said.
“They are suffering from anxiety, depression and when we discipline, that's not when they’re crying out for, they are crying out for help, the teachers are crying out for help, we need more mental health professionals in our schools,” he said.
George said she also offers support to the faculty and staff of Anniston City Schools as well.
George said the school systems partners with the following entities:
— The Anniston Lions Club that offers vision services for students at no charge
— Family Services Center that offers services to families and students that don’t have the insurance needed to get services from Highland Health
— Highland Health that provides counselors that visit the students at school
— Anniston Housing Authority provides support to help heighten the awareness of mental health
— Helping Families Initiative — United Way
Other support for students includes an annual back-to-school bash to help them acquire school supplies and other services. George said that the back-to-school bash this year will be on July 27 from 4 - 6 p.m. at Zinn Park.
To bring awareness to mental health the second annual embRACE 5K will be held May 13 from 8 a.m - noon at the Ft. McClellan Aquatic Center.
George said May is Mental Health Awareness Month and the event is being organized by mental health coordinators from area school systems.
In other matters the school board discussed selling the old Constantine school building to Head Start, which currently leases the building.
Dr. D. Ray Hill said the building appraises for $650,000 and if the building is sold those funds could be another revenue stream for the school system.
Johanna Martin, Anniston city schools chief financial officer, told the board if everything goes as planned the closing for the sale could be as soon as next month.
Martin said it is not known yet if Head Start wants to purchase only what it is leasing now or the adjoining property that building is on but those details should be worked out in the next few days.
During the formal meeting, things got off to a spirited start when Anniston City Councilwoman Ciara Smith spoke to the board and a standing-room-only crowd about how she perceives the school system today.
Smith said that she graduated from Anniston High in 2017, and while in school, attended countless council meetings and school board meetings advocating for herself and her peers because she knew they were deserving of a quality education.
“I knew that we were deserving of up-to-date textbooks or better yet, modern technology needed to propel us forward. I knew we deserved to sit in classrooms without worrying about mold and mushrooms growing on the walls,” Smith said.
Smith said their worries should not be whether they would freeze or sweat all day in class due to inadequate maintenance measures.
“Today, I still know that. I know our kids are brilliant, I know our kids are talented, I know our kids are worthy,” she said.
Then Smith questioned the leadership of the school system.
“The issue here is that leadership could change everything, there is evidence of a serious lack of true regard for our students. When you have, on a consistent basis, for the last 25 years, the lowest scores in northeast Alabama, what are you doing that is not working?” Smith said.
Smith said the curriculum at the school system has not been vetted by the state.
“A good leader would adopt a vetted program for the students because it is proven to work,” she said.
Without naming Dr. Hill personally Smith said she has been “shut out” by him.
“Of the 138 school systems, Anniston city schools is the 8th most funded system in the state and the 14th most funded federally,” Smith said.
“Can you imagine the impact of providing our students with well-trained, highly motivated teachers who have the best of instructional materials and facilities and are inspired to succeed by visionary leaders,” she said.
Smith said change has to come.
“When I see these scores, when I see our kids falling behind I don’t blame them. I was once that student. They are not failing the system, the system is failing them,” Smith said, “We can build a better tomorrow, but it starts with acknowledging the truth for what it is, and working collaboratively to get things done, today I serve notice to you all that this is the new beginning.”
After Smith finished she was met with applause from the audience and silence from the superintendent and the school board, which went on to the next item on the agenda.
After the meeting was over both Houston and Hill declined to comment on Smith’s address to the board.
Relations between the City Council and the school board have been frayed for some time that culminated in a tense meeting between the two governing bodies last November that was almost cut short due to bickering over how much money the city council allocates for the school system.
In other business, the board:
— Approved the financial statement for February 2023
— Approved a bid for cabling for Anniston High and Anniston Middle schools
— Approved the use of Anniston high school’s auditorium by CAST (Community Actors Studio Theater) to include a waiver of fees
— Approved a field trip for Randolph Elementary school to the aquarium in Chattanooga
The board went into an executive session to end the formal meeting.
Hill said the meeting was to discuss possible litigation and no vote of any sort would be taken after the executive session was over.