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Certified clinicians will head into 16 Santa Rosa schools this fall to provide mental health services to students as part of a $423,000 initiative approved Wednesday by the Santa Rosa City Schools board.

In addition to providing assessments and therapy for students, the program will offer teachers support and training in how to identify kids with mental health needs as well as how to work with them.

“This is wonderful; we’ve needed this for such a long time,” board member Donna Jeye said. “We’ve had teachers crying out for this.” She added that the program will help all students by easing the burden on teachers.

The program will address a long-standing need in the district to provide mental health services to students, Assistant Superintendent Diann Kitamura said. Shortly after she joined the district in 2013, she began asking teachers and staff what they saw as some of the biggest obstacles to student learning.

“One thing that came up was the need for mental health services for students,” she said. “We have to make sure there’s nothing in the way of kids learning and achieving.”

Last spring, the district conducted a pilot program to assess the need for those services. The county’s mental health department coordinated the effort, in which Social Advocates for Youth and the Child Parent Institute evaluated 171 students in seven elementary, middle and high schools over seven weeks. The students had been selected as at-risk by school counselors or administrators.

“What came up immediately was that issues of depression and trauma were getting in the way of students’ work,” Kitamura said. “That gave us the data, and fueled the will and desire of the school district to begin a bigger program.”

While each campus was different, anxiety, depression, trauma and behavior problems were common among all the schools and ages of students, according to a presentation Wednesday by Social Advocates for Youth.

Thirty percent of the 53 high school students evaluated had an eating disorder, 60 percent showed clinical levels of depression and 75 percent were failing at least one class.

They found that most of those students weren’t receiving treatment and didn’t qualify for the emergency services only available when a youth is deemed to be a risk to himself or others.

Six clinicians, working through Social Advocates for Youth, will spend two, seven-hour days per week in 14 of the schools and one day a week at Ridgway and Lewis Opportunity schools. They’ll evaluate children for potential mental health or behavioral issues and either provide therapy or refer the children to an outside organization that will provide it.

The elementary, middle and high schools were chosen because they had the greatest number of potentially needy students based on information provided in A Portrait of Sonoma and by First 5 Sonoma County.

The program is set to run for one year, at which point the district will consider whether to continue and possibly expand it.

Contracting with an outside organization, rather than hiring its own therapists, will save about $180,000 a year, Kitamura said.

Funding for the program comes through Title 1, a federal program that provides money for schools working with disadvantaged children; a state program to address students’ behavioral and mental health issues, and the school district.

The school board members present — Frank Pugh and Laura Gonzalez were absent — expressed unanimous support for the project, saying it was in line with both the district’s strategic plan as well as the city and county’s goals of addressing mental health.

“This is needed, it’s a must,” board member Larry Haenel said. “I’m so glad we’re addressing it.”

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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