Dr. Sheldon Eakins: (00:00)
Welcome, Advocates, to another episode of the Leading Equity podcast -- a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. I have a very special guest with me today. Her name is Ms. Nicole Dewitt and she did a presentation at the California Student Mental Wellness Conference and I kind of found her information there and I wanted to bring her on to share some information on meeting the social/emotional needs of all students. So Ms. Nicole is a principal out in California and she is the principal of Scripps Ranch High School. So without further ado, Ms. Nicole, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ms. Nicole Dewitt: (00:45)
Thank you for having me.

Eakins: (00:47)
So as I mentioned before, we're going to be talking about meeting the social/emotional needs of all students and today we're going to be doing things a little bit different. Normally, I just kind of pitch out questions and we kind of go from there, but we're going to be more case study based. Okay. Because one of the things, I appreciate it when I was kind of reviewing your presentation, the PDF was available and I was able to pull it up and take a look at some of the questions and kind of the way that you structured your presentation. There were some case studies and as I was reading some of those case studies, I was like, “Oh man, that sounds like some students that I work with at my school.” And I would imagine that there may be some similar characteristics for some of our advocates out there. And so I thought, you know, bringing you on and discussing some of these things from a case study basis. I thought that was going to be very important. So before we get into the actual case studies, could you kind of share a little bit about your background? What kind of led you to doing this work when it comes to a social/emotional needs of all students?

Dewitt: (01:48)
Sure. So I've actually been an educator since 2002 so I am dual credentialed in Spanish and English. So I've taught many different courses in different languages. I've taught different levels of Spanish at ESL and ELD and also different levels of English as well. And a lot of the support I provided was for struggling students, students that were tending to fall behind their peers. So I would work really closely with them to figure out what we could do to get them back on track. And what I noticed is that many of these students were dealing with a lot of social/emotional issues, a lot of trauma that was mainly coming from home life or previous experiences. And so those social/emotional issues were really getting in the way of their academic success. And so I reached out to a local nonprofit and we worked together to figure out some social/emotional programming that we could implement at the high school level to try to help students understand the issues that they were facing and some coping strategies and skills so that way they could overcome those barriers and be more academically successful.

Eakins: (03:03)
Thank you. And I appreciate you reaching out to an organization to lend some support. I think that's important. We don't always do that as far as leadership. Sometimes we try to handle things in-house and I appreciate that you went outside and actually brought in some people that, you know, this is what they do on a daily basis and you got that additional support. So thank you for seeking those resources and providing that service. You know, that's part of equity, right? We may say that we're attuned to being able to meet all students' needs, but you know, there's always, you know, where are you putting your resource? Are you providing financial support? Are you bringing in other resources to really hone in on that message that you're saying. So thank you for putting action into that message. So I want to get into our first case study and this again, this is off of your presentation and I will leave a link in the show notes in case anyone wants to pull it up.

Eakins: (03:56)
But the first student is Arturo. Now, he's a student who is frequently sent to the vice principal's office because of his outbursts in class and opposition to teacher instructions or directives. He has been suspended frequently throughout the school year and does have an IEP under OHI, but does not qualify for mental health services through his IEP. Since middle school, he has regularly used drugs due to his family instability, academically he earned C's and D's in the majority of his classes, but is chronically truant. His most recent behavior incident involved him having a verbal confrontation with the school police officer, which ended with Arturo being arrested and taken to the station. So given this information, what would be the next steps for this student and why?

Dewitt: (04:46)
So for this particular student, what the challenges -- and I think this is a challenge just overall with our student populations -- when we have mental health services on our campuses, whether it's school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, one of the barriers to students getting help is that there is still that stigma, unfortunately, with mental health and mental health providers. And so the students that need the most help are not going to be the ones that walk into our offices and ask for the help. So in particular with a student like Arturo, this is a student that was never going to come into my office and say I need to talk to someone about my feelings. That just was not going to happen. So even though we had the services on campus where students could walk in and speak with someone, we needed to figure out a way to capture the students that were more reluctant to go in and get those services on their own.

Dewitt: (05:40)
So for a student like Arturo, we actually had to set up something called a safety plan. And in that safety plan we discussed how are we going to make the campus safe, but also make you feel safe while you're here. In that safety plan, we kind of list different supports and structures. One of the things that we listed was for him to sit down and have a chat with one of our onsite therapists. And so that really prompted him to get the help that he needed, that he never would have done it on his own. We needed to formally put that in place for him as a strategy in order to secure his safety on campus. And I knew once he initially had that visit, he would see the value in speaking to someone and he did regularly meet with that therapist throughout the remainder of the school year. There was no more suspensions fortunately, he had very, very little discipline after that, the therapist was able to help him with his sobriety and he did end up graduating on track with the rest of his peers. So with a case like Arturo, that is a tougher case because it is not a student that's necessarily going to ask for help. So it's really figuring out support systems and structures that you can put into place as an adult on campus to make that help available.

Eakins: (06:59)
There's a couple areas that I want to dig a little deeper because, like you said, he's one of the students who even though you have access, you know, there's resources available for students, like you said, that you had onsite support. However, he's not one of the students that would come in and say, hey, I need some help. So I want to know how did you like for students that are in those kinds of situations, what would that process with sitting Arturo down and saying he finally agreed to take in the services and support? Like how did that all come about?

Dewitt: (07:30)
Well, I mean, being handcuffed at school and taken away is a pretty traumatic experience. I mean, I think that's probably the most extreme experience that you can have as a student. And so when he was returning to school, I had to have a very honest conversation with him as his vice principal to let him know, look, there are actions that you're taking where I'm not going to be able to help you when you do something where law enforcement becomes involved, I can't trump law enforcement, whatever law enforcement says that's what's going to happen. So we got to figure out a way to where you're not having those confrontations, and I'm sure you're aware in lots of different states, there is a limit to the amount of days that you can suspend a student in one school year and he was close to reaching that limit. It was starting to get to the point where I was not going to have a choice.

Dewitt: (08:25)
I was going to have to put him up for expulsion if he were to be suspended one more time. And so I really had to have a very honest conversation with him and figure out, do you want to be here? Do you want to be at this school? Do you want to stay at this school? And if you do, then I need you to do this for me. I need you to go and I need you to talk to someone about all these feelings and emotions that are bubbling over and putting you in these very volatile situations. And so I think it does go back to that relationship piece. I did have that established relationship and rapport with him and I was also very honest. I wasn't going to sugarcoat what was going to happen next. He needed to know this is it. If we don't make a change, you're not going to be able to stay here anymore. And that's just the fact of it. So what are we going to do to make sure that you can stay here because I want you here and I know you want to be here, so what are we going to do to make that happen? And so referring him to the therapist was one of the things that we agreed upon together.

Eakins: (09:31)
How tough was that conversation? Because like you say, you did have a relationship with the student. He's just returning back from suspension. So I would imagine he might've been angry, especially if you were involved with the decision to suspend a child. How tough was that and what helped you, I guess, maybe experience or training that really helped you to have this heart-to-heart conversation and to be able to kind of see, okay, he wants to be here and he ultimately decided that he was willing to take whatever support was available.

Dewitt: (10:01)
Well, I'm trained in restorative justice practices and so I definitely utilize those strategies in that conversation. Just letting him know how I was affected by the event and giving him an opportunity to talk about how he was affected by the event and just kind of dialoguing a little bit about everything that happened. How did it get to that point? You know, how did it get all of a sudden from you having a conversation to you getting handcuffs and taken down to the station, like how does that happen? And so we just had to have a very open and honest discussion about it and get to a place where, okay, now that we've been able to discuss how we felt and what happened, what can we do to prevent that from happening again? I basically want him to know I am an ally. I am, I am someone that he can come to. I'm not here to try to be the disciplinary and I want him to stay at school. And that's something that I definitely made sure to key in on throughout the conversation. I want you here. I want you to be here. So what are we going to do to make that happen?

Eakins: (11:08)
I love that answer. I loved your response and thank you for that. Now let's talk about the safety plan because, okay, so you had the heart-to-heart conversation and I know it had to be a difficult conversation on both sides. And he ultimately said, you know what? I want to be here. I'm willing to take the support that's available. Tell me more about the safety plan. What did that all entail?

Dewitt: (11:30)
So a safety plan really has two different components to it. You're basically stating what event led up to the need of a safety plan and kind of describing, you know, just very briefly what that event is and then very clearly stating what the expectations are now that the students returning back on campus, like being very clear like, hey, you can't, you know, raise your voice to law enforcement because that's going to trigger another situation. So just being very clear on what the expectations are for behavior on the return, but then also making sure that the student understands that this safety plan is also meant to provide support for them. So the second part of the safety plan is really, here are the supports that we as a school are going to provide you so that you feel safe when you're here on campus and you feel like you have another way or another outlet if you get put into a situation like this again. And so it's really two pieces very clearly communicated expectations as well as the supports that we're going to be giving the student to help them throughout this process.

Eakins: (12:37)
I love it. Thank you. I think that's an important message that you have there. It's, you know, the safety plan is, you know, this is what the school can do for you, this is what we need from you. So there's a partnership that's involved here and I think that's so important, so I'm really glad to hear that. Did you have any other comments that you wanted to add in regards to Arturo's situation?

Dewitt: (12:56)
I mean, the only other comment is that, you know, there are a lot of students like Arturo on our campuses and so one thing that we really worked on was developing our alternative to suspension groups. So instead of just suspending a student for two or three days and sending them off campus as a consequence, we did want to create more of a support group structure. And so working with this nonprofit called Mending Matters, we developed these four hour support groups that were specific to behavior. So for example, we had one called Respectful Relations for bullying and harassment. We had one specifically for vaping, we had one for truancy. And so students, when they exhibited these types of behavior on campus, instead of suspending them or giving them a traditional consequence like a detention or a Saturday school, we would instead refer them to this support group which was run by a therapist.

Dewitt: (13:53)
And in that support group they just provided, you know, very surface level discussions about what brought you here, what actions led up to you being here, talking about the "why" behind what happened and then doing a lot of goal setting. And part of the reason why those groups work so well is because, again, we're casting a wide net so we're really reaching out to students who aren't necessarily the students that are to come in and ask for help. But sometimes in being with that group and having that conversation, they might decide, “You know what, I do want to have follow-up appointments with this therapist and I do want to speak with them more regularly about what's going on with me.” Or sometimes the therapist would be in the groups and would realize, “You know what, there's 10 kids in this group and four of the 10 kids have parents who are incarcerated right now. So I'm going to start a support group for students with incarcerated parents and I'm going to invite these students to the support group that will meet weekly and we can kind of just discuss some of the issues that they're dealing with.” So it was just a way to kind of open the door a little bit more to exposing students to services that, again, they otherwise would not ask for.

Eakins: (15:07)
Now is the therapist a full time employee of the school or how was that?

Dewitt: (15:12)
So they're actually an employee of the Mending Matters program and so that is a nonprofit program that runs outside of the school. It depends how often they can be on campus. At the current schools that I met, they're here one day a week.

Eakins: (15:26)
Okay. So I want to shift gears to our second case study. The student here is Lisa. So Lisa is a high performing student who is enrolled in multiple honors and AP classes. She earned A's in the majority of her classes up until her junior year. Lisa's parents are divorced, but both put a lot of pressure on her to get good grades and attend a prestigious university after high school. Academic and family stress eventually led Lisa to feel overwhelmed and unable to attend school. Lisa stopped coming to school regularly and would miss entire weeks of class. She became withdrawn and refrained from doing any activities besides staying in bed. So given the services you have access to right now, what would be the next step for this student and why?

Dewitt: (16:18)
Yeah, this was, this was a really tough case, I have to be honest with you. This was a student that just stopped coming to school. I mean, was a straight A student and then all of a sudden just had a breaking point and just couldn't even get out of bed. So you know, the first step with Lisa was doing some outreach with her school counselor, making phone calls home, trying to set up meetings with parents to see what kind of support she needed. There was, you know, a little while where we had to make an adjustment with her scheduling and put her on more of an independent study type program while she was trying to figure out what would work for her. And then when she did return to school, she was very open to seeing [the therapist] regularly on campus. And the therapist was basically focusing attention on coping skills.

Dewitt: (17:06)
So if she was starting to feel a bout of anxiety or depression while at school, what were some coping strategies that she could use during the school day that would help her stay in school? And so that was really the focus on Lisa. And again, sometimes, the therapist would see multiple students in a similar situation and might decide, you know what, I think I'm going to form a support group for students that are struggling with depression and anxiety because that way students don't feel so alone. Like it's not just me that's struggling with this and hearing other students' stories might help on that road to recovery.

Eakins: (17:42)
And I liked that this is a totally different scenario than our first scenario there. Yet you were still able to, you know, help with support. So was that, you know, the meeting with the therapist, was that part of the safety plan? Was that kind of that process as well?

Dewitt: (17:58)
We didn't necessarily do a safety plan for Lisa, but there was definitely some agreements made with her school counselor on integrating her back into the school day. So, you know, for a little while she was on an independent study contract. And then once she felt comfortable enough to come back to school, it was a slow integration of, you know, we're not going to necessarily give you six classes. Like, maybe you start with four and see how you feel and that will give you time to meet with the therapist if you need to. And so just really tailoring it to the needs of the student in the moment.

Eakins: (18:29)
And what was the result? So what happened to Lisa? What was the outcome?

Dewitt: (18:32)
You know, she also ended up coming back to school full time and she graduated on time with her peers. And that was really the goal.

Eakins: (18:41)
Awesome story. So again, we had two very different students that we may find in our schools. A lot of us may find a Lisa or are true in our schools. How do we assess students and provide the right support? Like how do we make sure that we're giving them exactly what they need as opposed to just a general, okay, well, you know, they did this and already did that, so you know, here's the result. Or this is what we do. How do we provide more of an intentional, individualized support for their social/emotional needs?

Dewitt: (19:11)
So I think it definitely goes back to your data. So there's a couple of key data points that schools should look at when you're trying to design social/emotional programs. First and foremost is your discipline data. How many referrals are you receiving per week? What are the incidents that are related to the behavior referrals? Are you seeing, you know, a certain amount this week versus the next week? Or does the next month? Really trying to identify what are the top three behavior infractions because that's probably where you're going to have the most impact in developing alternatives to suspension groups and it's going to vary from school to school. Not every school is going to want the same alternative to suspension groups. I've been fortunate enough to work with Mending Matters across two different school sites and the school that I'm at now is much different than the school that I was at before and the alternative to suspension groups I'm running here are much different than the previous school that I was at because we based it off of our data.

Dewitt: (20:04)
We had to really take a deep dive into our behavior data and figure out what's going to help kids the most. And then most schools I think use some sort of culture and climate survey. Here in California, we do have the California Healthy Kids survey and there is a student survey portion and there is a big part of that survey that focuses on at-risk behaviors. We're talking about drug and alcohol use frequency, nicotine, tobacco use, suicidal ideation, mixed bouts of depression and anxiety, students at the freshman and the junior level take it in the spring. And so looking at those results and seeing, okay, where do we see the major issues that our students are struggling with? It's a completely anonymous survey so that we're a little bit more honest when answering those questions. And, you know, for us it can be very shocking when you're looking at data and you're seeing that 25% of your student population has had thoughts of suicide. That's a whole grade level of kids. That's a whole grade level of kids at a high school that's had thoughts of suicide. I mean that is just so, so unsettling and unfortunate. And that really is what drives the need for these types of programming is listening to what the students are saying in those types of surveys and then tailoring your program to better meet those needs.

Eakins: (21:29)
Thank you for that. Now here's my next question because, as I was listening to, like you said, you've worked in two different schools and you had the resource of the Mending Matters, what about schools and school districts who don't have access to a therapist? What are maybe some school structures that we can implement for social/emotional support?

Dewitt: (21:50)
I mean, you know, there's a lot of things out there right now around mindfulness and social/emotional learning and so there are a lot of things that can be incorporated into classrooms that can help teach students some of those social/emotional skills. And you know, all the efforts with PBIS and trying to promote a positive school culture and climate I think is really important. But a lot of the systems and structures that we put into place in partnership with Mending Matters are things that school sites could do as well if they have personnel that are comfortable in doing that. I do know that there are some school counselors who are, you know, licensed and could do some very basic therapeutic type services. If those counselors felt comfortable running an alternative to suspension group, they could. Or if there's a vice principal who's trained in restorative justice or practices that wanted to run alternative to suspension groups, they could do that as well because those groups don't necessarily require a licensed therapist. I guess the benefit of having a licensed therapist is that they're able to do some follow-up individual therapy appointments if they feel that that's something the student could benefit from. But, you know, there are other people on your campus that could potentially do that work if they've had some training and if they feel comfortable with it.

Eakins: (23:09)
Now logistically, because I've seen schools who have access to some outside agencies that are, you know, licensed practitioners, on your end, do you see a lot of parents' paperwork needs to be accompanied in order for these sessions to take place or especially maybe on an one-on-one side?

Dewitt: (23:27)
Sure. So when we're talking about the alternative to suspension groups, those are not providing therapeutic services. They're not going into like some deep therapy sessions. Like I explained before, it's more talking about what brought you here, what's the why behind the action and doing some goal setting. So for those groups, we do not require parent permission because we make it part of our student handbook. So it clearly states in our student handbook, the first time a student exhibits any bullying or harassment behavior, they will be referred to this program in lieu of suspension. You know, most parents don't want their students suspended from school. And so if you're able to offer an alternative, they're going to be on board with it. So we make it part of our student handbook. So it's very clear from the beginning that this is what we do in lieu of suspension.

Dewitt: (24:18)
You know, parents can always opt out, they can always opt to take the suspension versus the program. But, you know, I've worked with alternative suspension groups for I think about four years now, and maybe I've had one parent opt not to do the group. So they've been pretty successful in that respect. When you're talking about the support groups, like if you're doing issue specific groups, as I mentioned before, like depression, anxiety support groups or children of parents who are incarcerated. Those do require a permission slip and it just is basically giving the student permission to attend those group sessions and speak with a therapist in that safe space. And the same thing with the one-on-one, but again there is confidentiality associated with that. So the therapist isn't necessarily going to share all of the information with the parent. They're only going to share information, you know, if the student is in danger or if there's something that they need to report because they are also mandated reporters. But really the one-on-ones, which is the more intensive and the issue specific groups, those would be the only ones you need permission slips for.

Eakins: (25:22)
Got it. Okay. Now for those schools out there, those districts who are interested in restorative practices and other alternatives to suspension groups. If you were to sum up your experience in this work and, you know, wanted to provide someone a quick, okay this is what you want to, you know, this should be your main focus of all services. Like what would you say?

Dewitt: (25:46)
Again, it goes back to listen to the students. Listen to what the students are saying, look at what the students are doing, and really tailor it to meet the needs of your kids. What works really well at one school is not necessarily going to work well at another. So it's definitely not a one size fits all type program and set up. You really got to listen to your students and look to see what they're experiencing in order to better tailor the services to meet their needs.

Eakins: (26:14)
So, Nicole, I definitely appreciate you and I consider you as providing a voice in Leading Equity. What is one final word of advice that you could provide to our listeners?

Dewitt: (26:24)
You know, relationships are crucial and relationships are key and just being aware of the student experience. You know, sometimes, as a principal, I think it can be challenging to still make those connections with students. But when I'm walking around campus and I see a student sitting with their head down, I'm going to go up and I'm going to ask them, hey it going, how's your day doing? You know, is there anything I can help you with? Because sometimes that's all students need is just one adult, one person to notice that they're having a hard time or that they're struggling in order to get the help. That is really crucial to their success. So again, just being an active listener, being there, being present, I think is just crucial in order for all of our students to feel supported.

Eakins: (27:08)
I'm speaking with Nicole Dewitt and if we have some folks that want to reach out to you and connect and have questions maybe, what is the best way to connect with you online?

Dewitt: (27:18)
So I am on Twitter, it's @DeNdewitt. So you can follow me on Twitter. You can also reach me via email, which is again, just my name [email protected]

Eakins: (27:36)
Thank you so much for your time. It has truly been a pleasure. I've learned a lot and I appreciate the work that you're doing at your school. Sounds like there's a lot of great leadership happening on your end, so thank you so much for your time.

Dewitt: (27:48)

Yeah, thank you.

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