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Megan Wykhuis, a state grant-funded social worker at Soroco High School in Oak Creek uses poetry and writing to help students learn to cope with past experiences. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

OAK CREEK — Colorado lawmakers in the last legislative session committed more state money to behavioral health staffing in schools, hoping to help more students like a 15-year-old Routt County girl who credits the social worker at her school with saving her life.

The teen says she is a survivor of sexual assault that so devastated her psyche that one night she took her father’s handgun from his bedroom and planned to kill herself. A random text message from her sister kept her from pulling the trigger.

But she says it was Megan Wykhuis, the social worker Soroco High School hired in 2017 with a behavioral health grant from the state, who taught her the power of poetry could give her a reason to go on living and defeat her thoughts of suicide.

“She taught me how to help make sense of it all and how to have coping mechanisms,” says the student, whose name is not being used because she is a juvenile crime victim. When Wykhuis had her write a poem after her suicide attempt, she began to understand why she had grown so depressed and isolated and had stopped talking to others.

And she reached out for help.

Recently, she talked excitedly with a visitor to her school about how she hoped one day to have a career in social work so she could help others who had been sexually assaulted learn they can reclaim their power and not cede it to those who attacked them.

Megan Wykhuis’ work is funded by a few different grants through the Colorado Department of Education. “In Colorado we have the highest suicide rates and also the lowest paid teachers in the country,” she said. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Extra money welcome, though too little and long overdue

Lawmakers this legislative session earmarked about $3 million more annually for grants to Colorado schools for behavioral health care like Wykhuis provides. Supporters hope the extra money will reverse a trend that has left students in Colorado with fewer services than students elsewhere in the nation

The Colorado Department of Education handed out $9.4 million in state behavioral health grants in 2017 and $11.9 million in 2018 for new school social workers, counselors, psychologists and nurses. But 24 applications went unfunded in the last grant cycle. Senate Bill 10 ensures there will be $14.9 million in state grants, financed by marijuana sales tax revenue, for the next school year.

Though backers say the extra money is long overdue, the sum still won’t cover all the requests. And that’s worrisome, they say, given surging teen suicide rates and incidents of violence like this month’s shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch. In 2016, there were 77 suicides of Colorado youth ages 10 to 19. A year later, that number increased to 98. Suicide is the leading cause of death among Colorado teenagers.

Efforts also are underway to raise additional money from nonprofits and businesses for a pilot project to find out what will happen at schools that suddenly become among the best staffed in the nation for social workers, psychologists or counselors.

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The pilot project was created by House Bill 1017 that Gov. Jared Polis signed into law this month. It calls for $2.5 million in marijuana tax revenue to be used to attract up to $15 million in private donations.

The combined money would be used to finance the hiring of up to 60 new social workers, psychologists or counselors to bolster staffing for at least 10 elementary schools or K-8 schools over the next three to five years. Grants distributed through the pilot project would ensure each participating school has at least one mental health specialist for every 250 students — a staffing level that exceeds what many schools in the state currently have.

A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union reviewed 2015-16 staffing data from the U.S. Department of Education and found the staffing rates in Colorado schools for social workers, psychologists, counselors and nurses to be worse than the national average, and acutely worse than the recommended staffing for nurses and social workers. The ACLU findings were similar to a report by The Colorado Sun that found not one school district in the state meets recommended staffing ratios in all the categories of social work, psychology, counseling and nursing.

Professional associations recommend one nurse for every 750 students, but Colorado schools, on average, have a nurse on hand for every 2,853 students, the ACLU found. Staffing for counselors at Colorado schools, on average, is one nurse for every 503 students when the recommended rate is one nurse for every 250 students. And the staffing for psychologists is one for every 1,578 students when the recommended is one psychologist for every 500 to 700 students. The ACLU found that Colorado schools, on average, employ one social worker for every 2,258 students, compared with the recommended ratio of one social worker for every 250 students.

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Democrat from Commerce City who shepherded the legislation for the behavioral health pilot project, said she already is finding a receptive audience among potential donors and is confident she will succeed in raising the $15 million. She said she anticipates the data collected from the project will show improvements in mental-health and community outcomes.

Dafna Michaelson Jenet

“We believe we’ll get more family engagement and reduce depression and anxiety and reduce the likelihood of children getting trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said.

But she views the pilot project as just the start. Michaelson Jenet said House Speaker KC Becker picked her to chair an interim committee on school safety, formed in the wake of the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting. She said she will use that platform to continue highlighting the need for even more resources.

“We will look at what will be the long game for correcting this problem permanently as well as what is the short game for keeping families safe and secure,” Michaelson Jenet said. “Mental health will be a significant component of that. We know that school shooters are usually on a suicide mission, so we have to look at the underlying causes.”

Increasing school supports for behavioral and mental health is the whole reason Michaelson Jenet went into politics, where she won a state House seat in 2016. She watched her son, who has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, struggle to get the attention he needed in school. Because he’s highly intelligent and didn’t test below grade level, he didn’t qualify for special support services in school, she said.

She remembers when he was in ninth grade and the school called to say he had tried to kill himself. She recalls how she, despite her connections in the nonprofit world, still struggled to find help in what she calls Colorado’s chronically underfunded school system.

Eight years ago Soroco High School had no school counselor, no social worker. Now kids have an understanding of what grants and scholarship opportunities they have when applying to colleges outside their community. With the help of social worker Megan Wykhuis, there have been a few Boettcher scholars from Soroco High School. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s a budget problem with life-or-death implications

The sexual assault survivor at Soroco High School said it’s important that the legislature work on finding the answers to those questions.

“It could be the difference between life or death,” the girl said. “It was for me.”

Students at Soroco High describe Wykhuis, the school social worker, as the glue that keeps everything together. All freshman at the school are required to take a class she teaches on social and emotional health unless their parents opt them out. The school district is small, with about 100 students, and all of them have Wykhuis’ cell phone number, as do their parents.

Students in Wykhuis’ class meet each school day and learn how to create a supportive community for themselves and how to reach out when things get tough. They go over who they can rely on inside and outside the school. They are taught how to manage stress. They review the development of the teen brain. They also learn techniques for peacefully resolving conflicts, and how to manage their social media accounts.

“Kids don’t know how to cope anymore and learning how to reach out is really important,” Wykhuis said.

During one recent class discussion, the students were reviewing the difference between making a big decision versus making a small decision. They animatedly discussed what impact a big decision, such as using drugs, can have on a developing teen brain.

When Wykhuis asked those in attendance who they could call to help them make a big decision, those in the class shouted out almost in unison, “You.”

Such connections are critical in Routt County, a mostly-rural part of northwestern Colorado that includes Steamboat Springs. It’s an area that has struggled with a heavy load of tragedy. From 2010 to 2012,  Routt County was part of a four-county region where the suicide rate was nearly double the state average, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported.

Wykhuis teaches her students how to cope. She hands out little figurines, a plastic pig in one instance, that the students can carry with them and hold to calm them down during stressful times.

She teaches them breathwork and mindfulness. She teaches them to download apps to their phones and computers that can help them synchronize their breathing with their heart rates.

“Kids don’t know how to cope anymore, they hide behind screens. I’m trying to teach them how to acknowledge a problem and act,” social worker Megan Wykhuis. She uses applications like Heart Math to help students work their way out of anxiety attacks by following computer prompts for breathing. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It helps you to stop crying,” one 15-year-old girl said of the biofeedback computer app that helps her breath come in deep and strong as opposed to the jagged gulps she takes when she’s nervous. The breathwork came into play on one recent painful day for the girl, who told Wykhuis she felt her boyfriend was being aloof, and that she worried her family could be evicted from their home.

That girl and the sexual assault survivor bonded that day and agreed to help each other.

“If you need anything, just let me know,” the assault survivor said.

That girl knows well what the support of others can mean. She keeps in her cell phone case the message of support another student jotted out to her on a Post-it note. It was one of the class assignments from Wykhuis — the “positive Post-it assignment.” Each student was required to write supportive notes to five other people.

The girl shared her message — just 10 encouraging words, a smiley face and two hearts — and then tucked it into the privacy of her phone case.

“This just makes me smile when I need it,” she said.