Last year, when Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed LB998, a bill proposed by Fremont’s state Sen. Lynne Walz to put a social worker in every Educational Service Unit (ESU) in the state, ESU 2 Administrator Ted DeTurk was disappointed.
“Without addressing this need, education is negatively impacted,” DeTurk told the Tribune at the time.
The bill would have used private donations to fund the new social workers in hopes of helping school districts better manage their mental health and behavioral needs. It was a concept that ESU 2 had vocally supported — and after it was vetoed, it started looking for alternatives.
“We needed to get creative,” said Dan Bombeck, director of student services for ESU 2.
ESU 2 accessed federal Title IV grant money to create a new position called “Social/Emotional Navigator” — an individual who will work in the ESU, sharing many of the same responsibilities that a social worker would.
Two Navigators were hired this past month — Megan Reese started on Jan. 7 and Krista Horton began last week.
As their title suggests, much of their work will focus on helping the 16 ESU 2 school districts navigate the mental health system, so they can help connect students and families with resources and services as needed.
“Schools do a great job with the academic and some of the behavior pieces that go on with students, but when it comes to the mental health pieces, schools are really kind of out of their element in that area,” Bombeck said.
“There’s other systems within the state — [Department of Health and Human Services], behavioral mental health systems — that really address those areas,” he added. “The connection with that is not always in easy one, in that the systems change.”
The Navigators would work to keep up to date on what resources are available for students through DHHS or other entities. Schools would be able to contact the Navigators when they feel that a student’s behavioral or mental health needs are exceeding their capabilities — say, if a school has found a student is abusing drugs or alcohol.
“I want to have like a bank of resources, where if someone needs help, I can have it ready to go and not have to get back to them in a few days,” Reese said.
Unlike a social worker, however, the Navigators will be spending more time in the school district, educating staff members on how to identify and address various mental health and behavioral needs, Bombeck said.
Some schools may have students who have experienced trauma in their lives, and that may affect their behavior or academic success.
“A lot of what we’re talking about, society isn’t as knowledgeable or as aware of,” Bombeck said. “That would be a great time for our Navigators to step in — Krista and Megan to step in — and say: ‘I’m going to talk to you about how trauma affects your students and what that looks like and how addressing that trauma can improve their outcomes.”
Both Reese and Horton have experience working with families and navigating resources.
Horton has a background in human services, working with children and families for a total of 16 years. For 10 years, she worked with Job Corps, providing educational and community resources for students after they graduated.
For Horton, the position offered an opportunity to contribute to the educational system, which she sees an indispensable part of an individual’s development.
“Education can level the playing field for individuals,” she said. “Education is not something that can be taken away, and if properly used, it can propel an individual to greater advantages than they ever could imagine before.”
Reese, meanwhile, worked in the Department of Health and Human Services, working in economic assistance for more than eight years. She finished off working on the childcare side, where she accumulated knowledge of resource to help families.
“I was able to see the families that needed the help,” she said. “There’s a lot of potential in this position — I could see it really helping the students that need it.”
Right now, the pair are working on building up their knowledge of available resources, networking and forging relationships with on both the academic side and the behavioral and mental health side.
“It’s a lot of learning,” Horton said. “I feel like a sponge just trying to take it all in and learn more about the academic side.”
They’re also trying to get a gauge on what some of the biggest needs are in the area school districts — such as access to resources in rural communities, where some families may be struggling with obstacles like transportation.
The Navigators will also be working with schools to look at their screening processes — how to assess students’ mental health needs.
Schools would then determine how those needs can be met — is it something that can be talked through with a school psychologist or counselor in a group setting? In a one-on-one meeting? Or do their needs extend beyond school resources?
“If it’s beyond their realm of expertise and ability to help, then that’s where the Navigators step in and say, ‘you know what, we have some community resources that we can connect you with,’” Bombeck said.
Since the position is grant-funded, the long-term viability is somewhat uncertain, with funding awarded on a year-to-year basis — but Bombeck said that the ESU expects that the grant will be available for the foreseeable future.
And even if the grant were to run out, the ESU expects to continue maintaining the position.
“We anticipate this will be a position that will carry on, even after grant funding is gone,” Bombeck said.
Mental health resources continue to be in an increasing demand in schools, Bombeck said. That’s at least partly because of increased awareness and a better understanding on how to identify mental health needs.
The ESU would still be in favor of legislation to address those rising needs, Bombeck said.
“I think any legislation to help mental health is something that we probably need,” he said.