Viewpoint: Great Neck expands mental health services for school community

Viewpoint: Great Neck expands mental health services for school community

It was my first time in the William Shine South High School building since the passing of this great man, who served as superintendent of GNPS for decades, a legend in public education. He died Jan. 28.

I came for the budget presentation last week, but first there was a presentation about a new, comprehensive mental health program that has been put into place – a main goal for the school board this year to address the extraordinary ongoing impact of the stresses put on students, teachers, administrators and their families from these past two years of coronavirus.

This district has always had a strong program to address students’ psychological needs and abilities, but what has been put in place is, in a word, amazing. The initiative doesn’t just focus on students in a dramatically expanded way, but on faculty and administrators who have had to shoulder extraordinary pressures as well as their families. A community approach.

Among the services being made available to staff is a new Employee Assistance Group that goes beyond typical services relating to emotional, marital and addiction services, to provide a range of services that touch daily lives – family relationships and financial, legal, work and career counseling. A special feature is access to a work-life personal assistant who can help find child, elder and pet care, housing, financial assistance and personalized coaching for peak performance. A specific resource center for educators helps them address such thorny issues as bullies and bullying, parental challenges, social networking, cyber safety and classroom management.

“We’ve had to lean heavily on our employees asking them to do things they had never done before,” said Jennifer Kirby, the district’s director of human resources. “Personal and professional well-being is the way they can be the best they can be.”

Student emotional and mental health has also been significantly expanded, largely to address the effects of remote learning – delayed social and play skills, lack of practice with task, problems readjusting to a school environment, Dr. Alison Brennan, executive director for Special Education and Pupil Services noted. All buildings now have mental health services on site.

Among the programs that has been available is “Beautiful Me,” a self-esteem boosting program for girls, but a district social worker took the initiative to develop a companion program for boys. There is also expansion of the district’s leading-edge peer-mentoring program, introduced 15 years ago, adapted for the various schools as Champions Club and Best Pals, where older students are trained to address younger students’ issues.

In Great Neck public schools, she noted, social-emotional learning programming is built into the school day – for example, clubs like Yoga Mindfulness, Psychology, Active Minds, and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions). The schools also hold Mental Health Week, Wellness Week, Kindness Week. Student mental health care is extended to support for parents and guardians. Parents can contact the professional in the student’s building and there are active parenting workshops.

The district now has a liaison in place to assist families who have been displaced due to economic hardship, natural disaster, fire, domestic conflict, eviction. “Situations can create enormous amount of stress on families and we work to keep displaced students in the same school,” Kirby said.

Great Neck has also been part of the Long island School Practitioner Action Network  from its inception. This is a network of over 30 districts – 100 mental health staff members – who help each other if any one district is in serious crisis.

But, she noted, there are some situations where students are in need of immediate psychological care, and that is where a new partnership with Northwell Health put into place in July 2021 comes in, giving Great Neck students the means to obtain immediate referrals and counseling when without such links obtaining such appointments can take weeks.

“Even before pandemic but certainly since the gap in the mental health care system – between being in crisis and needing immediate service and getting to see provider, can be eight weeks or longer – a long time to wait when a child is struggling,” Dr. Vera Feuer, director of pediatric Emergency Psychiatry and Behavioral Health urgent Care at Cohen Children’s Medical Center and a Great Neck schools parent, explained.

Mental health staff in each building are trained in threat assessment as well as how to identify students at risk for self harm. “The goal is to maintain the safety of the entire school community,” Dr. Brennan said.

In other words what happened in Oxford, Mich., when a 15-year-old student who was flagged as dangerous was allowed to return to his class where he pulled out a gun and killed four people and injured seven, could not happen here.

“This district has a robust threat assessment protocol, now supported by our partnership, to address an immediate need for help. The district spent the last few months updating threat assessment, added some components, with input from the Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security in response to Michigan,” Brennan said.

It is reminiscent of how the district sprang into action after Columbine with vastly improved systemwide security improvements, including making transportation available to virtually all students, and again after bullying, particularly online bullying, became an issue.

School Board member Barbara Berkowitz noted, “We need to do everything we can to get the information out to the community. It is important to de-stigmatize getting help.”

On this evening, the board listened patiently and respectfully as a parent objected to the vulgarity of a book her child was reading in English class and a student stood up to demand more respectful conditions for transgender students.

Coincidentally, she spoke the day before the White House and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul proclaimed March 31 as Transgender Visibility Day. (I had a mental image of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ head exploding.)

Programs like this comprehensive mental health initiative don’t just happen. They happen because of the values and culture embedded in our school district, manifested in the district’s mission to “provide innovative and collaborative education environment that supports academic excellence and the social and emotional growth of all students so they may become life long learners and compassionate, productive members of a diverse, global society.” It’s like so much of how this district has functioned largely because of Dr. Shine.

And these programs are made possible because of what we in the community authorize in the school budget.

(See the mental health presentation at the Great Neck Public Schools website,

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