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Mental health screening results of LAUSD kids alarming yet typical

Craig Clough | April 10, 2015

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mental healthTo a layman, the raw data from an ongoing mental health survey of LA Unified’s students is shocking, jaw-dropping and head-spinning: 98 percent reported experiencing one or more stressful or traumatic life events in the past 12 months and at least half suffer from moderate to severe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

But also shocking in its own way is that fact that the numbers aren’t shocking. They’re typical.

“It’s nothing new for us, the numbers are pretty consistent,” Pia Escudero, director of LA Unified’s School Mental Health, told LA School Report.

The stats are from an ongoing district survey of 6th and 9th graders, with 600 screened last school year and over 900 so far this year toward a goal of 1,000. Escudero said she plans to release a public report from the survey in June. She said the early results are comparable to a smaller study done in 2005 in the district and are consistent with studies done in other urban and rural districts.

“[The numbers] are alarming, but we have the tools to address behavior in a different way when we know it is trauma,” Escudero said.

The parents of incoming 6th and 9th graders are asked to sign consent forms for the district to screen their children, and when there are enough consent forms, a class is given a paper survey to fill out, Escudero explained. The form includes 14 questions about possible life events they may have experienced, such as an incident with a gun or the death of a close relative.

It then asks about any symptoms they may have. The PTSD symptoms cited by some LAUSD students include feeling future [positive] events will not come true (57 percent), feelings of apathy (57 percent), feeling irritable/fits of anger (49 percent), trouble sleeping (49 percent) and trouble concentrating (45 percent).

Students who exhibit red flags in their survey are offered counseling or group therapy, Escudero said, and the district also works to inform teachers about the trauma many of their students deal with.

“That’s a big challenge for us, to teach teachers who usually drive in to a community and then drive out at the end of the day, that these communities that children live in are impacted by these events, that we can’t even imagine they are experiencing very frequently in their lives,” Escudero said.

The Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA) published some of the raw data in a recent newsletter.

“Students who experience traumatic events often face circumstances which impede their coping skills development and/or contribute to developing unhealthy coping strategies,” the newsletter said. “School administrators, teachers and support staff must understand the complexity of trauma and its effects on learning, as well as, how they can support students during traumatic experiences, help to build resiliency and to learn appropriate coping skills.”

The screening has taken place at several dozen schools and at some of the district’s Wellness Centers, Escudero said, and officials are still working to identify how many foster youth, free and reduced lunch students and English learners are among those screened.

Escudero said once teachers or administrators are better informed about the trauma a student has suffered, the information can help them improve the student’s behavior if they are acting out or becoming withdrawn.

“We are very progressive in our district with our approach,” Escudero said.



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