How one county in southern Arizona developed a unique student mental health initiative shared across five school districts.
As schools around the country begin to start the new school year, one county is finding ways to address students’ mental health needs as a critical component of school safety and violence prevention.
A program that works well is one that has been carefully crafted with expert guidance to meet a school’s needs, which is what Santa Cruz County, Arizona, achieved by developing a training series focused on brain health, with assistance from The National Center for School Safety (NCSS), based at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
NCSS operates the Bureau of Justice Assistance's (BJA) Students, Teachers, and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence National Training and Technical Assistance Center and provides a wide range of support and expertise to grantees throughout the country.
NCSS has received nearly $16 million in grants since fiscal year 2019 through BJA’s STOP School Violence Training and Technical Assistance (STOP TTA) program. The funds support schools in developing safety programs created to fit their unique context, considering factors such as capacity, population, geography, and funding constraints.
“For a grantee, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ to school safety. So much is dependent on student population needs and having a clear understanding of what resources are already available.” — Emily Torres, NCSS Program Manager and Technical Assistance Lead
One County's Approach
The five school districts within Santa Cruz County, Arizona are seeing firsthand how a special safety-related behavioral health program, focused on brain function, is flourishing with educators. The Promoting Healthy Students Initiative (PHSI), Santa Cruz County’s NCSS grant-supported safety project, includes a series of workshops for educators on trauma-informed care and brain development. The training workshops focus on “various aspects of school safety, beginning with the root causes of dysregulation,” says Teresa Sprigg, PHSI Grant Director with the Santa Cruz County School Superintendent’s Office.
Award notification arrived in November 2020 during the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sprigg says. “In general, people were going through difficult times,” and had lots of “fear, anxiety, isolation, and uncertainty, so our teachers were eager to obtain knowledge and strategies.”
One of PHSI’s early virtual trainings maxed out at 100 participants, demonstrating the level of interest and urgency, says Sprigg. “To date, over 2,300 individuals have participated, including teachers, school personnel, and law enforcement officials."
“I think what makes this grantee really exceptional is that they’re working with a very diverse county in a number of ways. They are serving a large Hispanic population, as well as having schools and districts that are in urban, suburban, and rural areas.” — Emily Torres, NCSS Program Manager and Technical Assistance Lead
Addressing Trauma Head-On
PHSI’s initial steps in setting up the workshops included foundational training aimed at creating “shared common knowledge and common language amongst our school communities and partners,” says Sprigg.
In the workshops, teachers learn how trauma can cause uncontrolled emotional responses in students, and they are trained in strategies for dealing with it. The emphasis is on “viewing trauma through the lens of brain theory,” which has “provided a base for shared collaborations and discussions with school districts and our partnering agencies,” says Sprigg. This approach follows the Neurosequential Model in Education method, which teaches how the brain’s reaction to trauma affects learning and classroom behavior.
The workshops began with two trainers and have now expanded to five trainers, and the Santa Cruz County school districts continue to request more workshops each year. “In our first year, we had 379 teachers and staff trained. In our second year, we added an additional 213 participants,” says Sprigg. Some schools requested a refresher training session for their staff in the second year. “The increase in requests has been a very positive sign.”
In responses to the post-workshop evaluation survey, the participants were enthusiastic. Almost every teacher (98%) said they saw themselves using the strategies, and 96 percent were excited to apply the information in their classrooms, says Sprigg. "One teacher shared that she enjoyed 'learning about different brain functions and understanding how some students may feel.'"
The next phase of the PHSI’s grant will include more comprehensive data collection to assess how teachers have directly applied what they learned in the workshops and how that training has helped students.
When a program works well, news travels fast.
"The information is valuable, and the word has spread amongst the Santa Cruz County educational community." — Teresa Sprigg, PHSI Grant Director, Santa Cruz County School Superintendent's Office