Sauk Prairie Schools creates crisis team for student mental health

The Sauk Prairie School District is reformatting how they help students dealing with a mental health crisis.
Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 6:00 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 14, 2023 at 10:25 PM CDT
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SAUK COUNTY, Wis. (WMTV) - The Sauk Prairie School District is reformatting how they help students dealing with a mental health crisis, and the system could serve as a model for other districts in the state.

A $4.66 million dollar School-Based Mental Health Grant from the US Department of Education, spread over five years, is allowing the district to create a new crisis support team with county partners.

When a student is in crisis they will get immediate help through a member of the crisis team, rather than through a school-based counselor, social worker, or psychologist.

“One example is our partnership with Sauk Prairie Health Care. Right now, a lot of families struggle to get their children mental health services and the wait time can be 6 months - 9 months long. So, working with the hospital we’re hiring a clinical therapist,” explains Jeff Wright, Superintendent of the Sauk Prairie School District.

Other partners collaborating with the new team include law enforcement, court system, and community agencies in Sauk county.

Wright says Sauk Prairie’s model is meant to serve as a pilot program, with a goal of implementing similar support teams in other Wisconsin school districts in the future.

Sauk Prairie Middle School Counselor of 21 years, Mindy Breunig, says the additional resources will allow her to reach more children in her building.

“By having this team of people that’s going to handle more of the crisis, we’re going to be able to do more of the preventative work, or really focus in on kids that have been struggling but maybe have yet to rise to that emergency level,” says Breunig.

Sauk Prairie Middle School Counselor, Mindy Breunig, works on her computer inside her office.
Sauk Prairie Middle School Counselor, Mindy Breunig, works on her computer inside her office.(Erin Sullivan (WMTV))

The money will also allow the Sauk Prairie School District to conduct a new survey involving every student in the district, “using a data driven empirically based survey called the BASC3,” explains Breunig.

She went on to say that the survey is, “helping us discover students who are struggling that might not be vocalizing that to us, or struggling more than we thought they were.”

Her team started using BASC3 last school year at the middle school and identified one-fourth of middle school students as needing mental health support, something Breunig says surprised her.

“There’s definitely a need for more support than we’ve been providing and have been able to provide,” says Breunig.

This data will be significant, as identifying students in need is a hurdle many Wisconsin school districts face, according to Karen Horn, a School-Based Mental Health Professionals Education Consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

“The fear is that we have students that are really struggling and we’re not identifying them, and maybe we’re misidentifying them as having a behavior problem rather than addressing the real need for the student,” says Horn.

Horn says part of the problem is the ongoing shortage of school-based mental health professionals. She explains that a lack of state funding for competitive salaries, and professionals feeling overwhelmed and burnt-out, makes recruiting and retaining counselors, psychologists, and social workers a challenge.

“I would encourage school leaders to advocate on behalf of these positions. Often, they’re not the first positions we think about in schools, we think about teacher shortages. Of course, that is incredibly important, but it’s also important to have the correct positions in place to address these mental health needs,” says Horn.

There is some hope on the horizon in Wisconsin, as DPI was awarded a $10 million School-Based Mental Health Professionals Grant, spread over 5 years, in the fall of 2020.

From 2020-2021, some of the money was spent on working with University of Wisconsin programs to increase enrollment in these fields of study, according to Horn. That resulted in 213 new students enrolled in the 10 University of Wisconsin programs for school-based mental health professionals, according to Horn. This, in turn, is helping funnel more qualified applicants into open positions in the state.

“Through our School-Based Mental Health Professionals grant we were able to hire 39 full time school-based mental health professionals. So, we’re excited about that,” says Horn.

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