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At first sign of trouble, HEROES are there

December 11th, 2011 9:42 am by Gary B. Gray

At first sign of trouble, HEROES are there

Early intervention.
For members of the HEROES Core Management Team, that term has teeth. It means being proactive even when there are only subtle clues that indicate something is troubling a Johnson City school student. It means the path to resolution is made shorter, and problems, whether at school, home or elsewhere can be addressed sooner.

   The school system has at its disposal a combination of the watchful eyes and disciplinary means of authority, as well as the calming, psychological troubleshooting capabilities of trained counselors and therapists who work as one cohesive unit to cut problems off at the pass.

   In 2008, a partnership between the Johnson City School System, Johnson City Police Department, Frontier Health and Johnson City Juvenile Court received a one-time, $6 million HEROES Program grant.

   The management team was formed and charged with identifying problems in classrooms, in schools and at homes and heading them off by means of early intervention. The list of reasons members of the team get involved is a long one and reaches from the extreme, such as urgent security problems, neglect, drug abuse, anger management and mental health issues to the rather banal, but possibly revealing, habitual tardiness.

   Their standards are high, their reports detailed. And the partnership appears to be accomplishing what it was intended to do. Members of the team gathered at North Side Elementary School this week to explain the process and the positive results they’re noticing as the program clicks off its fourth year.

   “Our goal is to implement an integrated, comprehensive, community-wide plan designed to create a safe, respectful and drug-free school environment and promote pro-social skills and healthy childhood development in the youth of Johnson City,” said Greg Wallace, the school system’s HEROES Program director. “We’re in the fourth year of the grant, and it helps pay for professionals’ time and services. It is a one-time deal, but we’re hoping other grants and local matches will help fund this.”

   The program sprang from the incident at Columbine High School in 1999. The massacre provoked debate on the availability of firearms and gun violence involving youths. Discussion also centered on the nature of high school cliques, subcultures, bullying and the use of pharmaceutical anti-depressants by teenagers.

   “I can look in the file and see that a student has five or six days of unexcused absences — not in a row — just an unusually high number,” said Shanna Fudge, a school system social worker. “I call his house, or myself and the principal will go to the home and knock on the door. We may find that a parent has a drinking problem. That may be found to be the core problem. But we also do parenting education. We will help the parent, which in turn helps resolve the child’s depression or aggression.”

   The theme here again is intervention — taking action at the first sign of potential trouble. It’s a word team members often use.

   If the problem is more immediate, an assault at school for example, a School Resources Officer will be called and counselors are brought in immediately.

   “Sometimes it may be a situation where the student has threatened to commit violence,” said Rebecca Sapp, Frontier Health HEROES school-based staff coordinator. “Parents are notified right away. We ask why they’re angry, where the anger came from — are they just blowing off steam? We assess the risk, but we don’t do anything without parent consent.”

   Sapp said Frontier Health counselors are stationed at each school.

   “We might recommend counseling, or we might recommend hospitalization,” she said. “We are the community health center without walls.”

   Whether a child makes a trip to Juvenile Court depends on the act. Truancy, assault or drug possession likely would cause that to happen.

   “I’ve worked throughout the state of Tennessee, and I’ve worked with various agencies, but I’ve never had access like this,” said Tennelle Sargent, Johnson City Juvenile Court specialized probation officer. “I can find out quickly if the parent and student are coming to the counseling sessions and if they are participating or just coming and staring at each other.

   Sargent said that generally when a child is placed on probation they undergo counseling sessions monthly or bimonthly. If, however, they are placed on specialized probation, the sessions may be daily. Sargent said that thanks to the quick intervention by the team she is able to meet with both the parents and children before they ever go to court, as opposed to merely serving them with a petition to appear in court.

   A strong and very functional collaboration from a variety of community resources has been formed to intervene in situations when and where problems occur before they escalate. Two School Resource Officers from the JCPD are assigned to eight elementary schools, counselors and therapists are at the ready, Juvenile Court has quicker access to records and helps oversee rehabilitation, and teachers and parents also are heavily involved.

   Indian Trail Middle School and Science Hill High School also have these resources available, but much of the funding — for the SROs, for example, is paid for by the city.

   “One the most important things we do is develop relationships,” said Eric Hilton, one of the two police officers who serve as SROs at elementary schools. “We have one officer at one school for arrival, lunch and dismissal. In between, we will do safety checks at the other schools. But no matter where we are, any school can call us if they have a need.”

   The SROs work a 7:45 a.m. until 3:45 p.m. shift. They then go back to being “regular” officers. They also turn in monthly reports that may include suggestions for tighter security or the pinpointing of a minute detail such as a particular door being unlocked. They also report what’s being done right.

   “It’s important to be at the schools so the students, teachers and parents become acquainted with you — they know you — they’re not surprised that a police officer is there. It gets to the point where I can see a child is having a bad day just by looking at their face as they get out of the (parents’) car. Something that subtle may cause me to talk to administrators. It’s about communication and it’s about doing it early.”

   SRO Thomas Duncan agreed with Hilton that relationship-building is a must.

   “We’re in the cafeteria — we’re everywhere — and they know we’re here working together as a team,” he said.

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