This Utah school district plans to have a full-time psychologist in each of its 36 elementary schools by fall

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Doree Strauss, an administrator with Jordan School District, July 19, 2018.

They would come to her office to talk about their mom or dad getting arrested over the weekend. They’d stop in to say they were feeling overwhelmingly sad. They’d tell her they were worried about being evicted. Sometimes, they’d sit down and say they were thinking about suicide.

As principal at Bastian Elementary School last year, Doree Strauss listened and tried her best to act as a backup counselor. But she was always surprised that fourth- and fifth-graders were dealing with these kinds of difficulties — and worried that they were coming to her because there wasn’t enough support staff to help them.

Bastian Elementary in Herriman had a psychologist, but she was an intern and assigned to cover two schools, Strauss said.

“I had to fill in a lot,” said Strauss, now an administrator. “We just used the resources we had because that’s what you do so the students aren’t suffering.”

Come fall, though, the Jordan School District plans to provide relief.

The district intends to be one of the first in Utah to have a full-time psychologist in each of its 36 elementary schools. Its school board approved the mental health initiative last month as part of a $710 million budget, which includes more staff and training for students at all of its schools, including 10 middle schools and eight high schools and technical schools.

Though new staff may not be fully in place by the time school starts in August — particularly with a nationwide shortage of school psychologists — the district has started hiring and will temporarily supplement with counselors.

Right now, it’s short by 5.5 psychologist positions, meaning 11 elementary schools will have a psychologist for half the week and a counselor for the other half; either one can talk to students about their concerns while only a psychologist can do formal assessments (neither can write a prescription).

Before the new funding, 28 elementary schools had psychologists splitting their time between two and sometimes three campuses.

“We can do so much more now in terms of prevention instead of just intervention,” said Fulvia Franco, who oversees guidance programs for Jordan School District. “We know that children can be taught the skills in terms of coping when things don’t go their way or helping them to calm down if they’re upset about something.”

Strauss, who now oversees 12 elementary school principals for the district, said over the course of her 28-year career as a principal at multiple schools, she’s seen students feeling increasingly anxious or depressed.

“Things have changed quite a bit in the last five years,” she said.

There are more pressures within families, Strauss believes, more parents working two or three jobs to pay the bills and, particularly in communities like Herriman, more wealth disparity. She hopes that by getting help starting at a younger age, students will be better equipped to handle stress and deal with negative emotions in a healthy way.

The new mental health initiative is part of the district’s response to the loss of seven students, enrolled or recently graduated from Herriman High School, who died by suicide over the past year. The district has hired a suicide-prevention consultant to work districtwide.

The district currently has a psychologist in each of its middle and high schools, as well as in its seven Title I elementary schools, which have higher percentages of students from low-income families and receive some federal funding for counseling services. It has now hired 18 more.

“We really do need to get that support early on,” Strauss said.

She was principal as Bastian Elementary last year, its first in operation. Before that, she’d worked at schools in Daybreak and Draper, which had students who needed mental health support but not at the volume she saw in Herriman.

The school sits in the southwestern corner of Salt Lake County, where there’s a mix of new, pricey developments and inexpensive apartments. Administrators brought in clothes and food for students from families who needed help.

But having a psychologist there for just half the week wasn’t enough, Strauss said. She dropped administrative responsibilities to help pick up the slack.

Strauss met with students at least once a week who needed counseling, and her two aides and secretary also helped meet the demand for a listening ear; none of them had any formal training. Sensing a bigger gap, the group also developed its own anti-bullying and resiliency programs that it would teach in classrooms twice a month.

Darrell Robinson, a member of the district’s Board of Education, remembers visiting Bastian last year and seeing the demand on Strauss, with several students coming up to her asking to talk. “I just noticed that a lot of time is taken up by issues that could be taken up by a psychologist.”

He and others pushed for the funding for full-time psychologists this summer after years of debate. Robinson’s hope was that it would “lighten up the load” on teachers and principals. He wants them to spend less time filling the role as counselors and more time doing what they were actually hired to do. And he wants students to get the support they need so they can come to school and learn.