In the wake of two tragedies, a local high school hopes to see changes as it grieves and heals.
Orange County Public Schools’ Mental Health Services department gave parents a presentation Thursday, Feb. 27, at Windermere High School about the various resources available to students and families — a response to the tragic death of a Windermere High School student.
Early in the presentation after a moment of silence, Orange County School Board District 4 Member Pam Gould addressed the audience regarding the recent death — the second this school year at Windermere High School.
“We can’t let loss — especially loss that we can’t make sense out of in any way, shape or form — paralyze us from taking action to heal as a community and wrap around the children that are here and around the family that’s in the community,” Gould said. “Tonight is really the first action response — this is the reactive part in a very proactive way. … Really, tonight is about us standing together against a horrific illness that is happening too often in our nation, period — this issue of suicide and violence.”
Anna Williams-Jones, mental health services director for Orange County Public Schools, gave a breakdown of the various services available at elementary, middle and high schools.
At Windermere High — as well as the other high schools — Orange County Public Schools offers four to seven certified school counselors; a SAFE coordinator and school-based social worker; Kognito five-hour mental and emotional education; a mental-health counselor (for a half-day each week); an additional social worker (for one day each week); psychologists (for two days each week); and a Panorama Social Emotional Learning Survey, which allows students to express their needs.
Changes are on the horizon for Windermere High School. Art teacher Sam Andrews-Jarvis will be sponsoring a mental health club called “Where You Come First” — where students can come together and discuss the recent student deaths and their own mental health issues.
Andrews-Jarvis told the audience suicide has impacted her personally. Her high school boyfriend, her best friend from high school and her college roommate all took their own lives over the years.
“This is something I’ve been through a lot,” Andrews-Jarvis said. “I know it’s needed, and I’m not afraid to talk about it.”
She said after the meeting that she hopes the new club at Windermere High School gives the students a positive outlet.
“I hope it helps them navigate all the emotions after a suicide easier than I did when I was young and it happened to me,” she said.
Williams-Jones said staff plans to talk with Principal Douglas Guthrie and look at what personnel should be added.
“It seems that they are having students who want support that are just outnumbering their ability to respond in a quick turnaround,” she said. “We’re going to look at the data and see how we can add additional personnel to support for the remainder of the year and then look at next year and see how we need to start the year.”
After the presentation, parents shared their own reactions and thoughts on the two deaths.
Resident Valerie Mihalek said with so many students in the school, students who need help are sometimes overlooked.
“You hear every parent say over and over again that we’re in a school that is almost double its capacity and it’s three years new — that’s unacceptable,” Mihalek said. “The question becomes, ‘What are the resources that are given to these schools once they hit capacity — which in this area seems to be the moment they open?’”
Resident Kamy Moss, who expressed concern for her own son and his access to resources at the school, said after the meeting she hopes parents will lead the way — talking to their students about mental illness while also volunteering to help in whatever way they can in a school with a large student population. The sheer number of students at the school is a hindrance, she said, but she hopes to see that become a positive — families supporting each other with strength in numbers.
“It was encouraging to see other parents nodding and being accepting of each other and hearing that, ‘You’re not alone’ — that the experience your student is having is being felt in other homes,” Moss said. “I always try to tell my student that, ‘I bet half your friends have the same issues you do.’ … It starts with the parents. We have to say, ‘It’s in my house too,’ and then the kids can say, ‘You know what? It’s OK to talk to my friend about this, because I know they understand.’”
During the presentation and following conversation with parents, OCPS staff highlighted NAMI Ending the Silence — a presentation by the National Alliance on Mental Illness designed to give audience members an opportunity to learn about mental health through an informative slideshow and short videos.
NAMI Ending the Silence will be presented at a nearby high school on a date to be determined.
“We need our kids to talk to us, not be ashamed to talk to us — that’s so crucially important,” said Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs, who shared her own story of her brother’s suicide. You’re not alone in this.”
Anyone in need of assistance during a crisis can go online to suicidepreventionlifeline.org or call 1-800-273-8255.