When Gov. Kate Brown defended a push to reopen schools last term, she cited an increase in suicide attempts among students isolated due to remote learning.
Some educators voiced concern at their lack of training in the mental health field. While students throughout Oregon will be returning to classroom instruction in the fall, there is concern about the effects of trauma from an unprecedented year of sheltering in place and depending on district-provided Chromebooks to learn from home -- a year that has also seen an almost record-breaking incidence of gun violence in Portland.
Last week, the Multnomah County Health Department proposed a violence prevention plan that may prove to be a safer alternative to the school resource officers program that was discontinued last term. The department is applying for a three-year, $1 million grant from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. Representatives for the health department said it would partner with school districts, student health centers, and community-based organizations, largely to prepare teachers and school staff to teach students about violence prevention, including lessons on risk assessment, intervention and anti-bullying.
“What we’re really interested in is ensuring students are centered in the conversation.
"Specifically around anti-bullying and creating positive school environments -- what does that really mean?” Erika Molina, development coordinator with the Multnomah Youth Commission, told The Skanner.
The youth commission is one of the partners named in a summary submitted to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, along with the sheriff's office, the department of community justice, school districts, and community-based organizations.
"The proposed project fits squarely within the health department's mission: 'We work with communities to advance health equity, protect the most vulnerable, and promote health and wellness for everyone,’” the health department stated in a notice of intent submitted to commissioners. “Multnomah County has been on the forefront of local and national efforts to address youth violence in schools and the community."
The federal Student, Teachers, and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Grant Program has set aside $74 million to be made available to states, local governments, public agencies, federally recognized Indigenous tribes, private schools and other nonprofits. Funding cannot be used to hire or retain security officers, nor can it be used to purchase security equipment like surveillance systems or locks.
That stipulation is reassuring to some community leaders who are otherwise wary of well-intentioned programs that might ultimately fail to serve BIPOC communities. Former mayoral candidate and Don’t Shoot Portland founder Teressa Raiford was cautious when asked about the proposal.
“We would hate to see the same components being utilized for something that should be progressive,” Raiford told The Skanner. She added, “We know that children are affected by the violence that’s happening in our communities, and we have zero resources that don’t involve policing them or separating them from families, or data collection or white supremacist-focused elements.”
Raiford was also concerned about what she sees as local officials’ “unwillingness to work with unvetted community organizations” -- smaller, grassroots groups that were more familiar with the on-the-ground realities of their neighborhoods.
“I hope that they include some of the work grassroots organizations are doing to support community efforts,” she said.
“There’s a blueprint out there.”
Raiford described how mental health issues were so often at the core of violence in the Black community.
“People are literally on the edge. Portland’s Black community is very small. There’s a lot of trauma there, and it’s never been addressed. The trauma of systemic abuse, gang violence…When we do community events, and kids are making their zines and their signs, they’re all putting ‘RIP.’ They're putting the name of someone they’ve lost. When you tell them to put a slogan on something and we can turn it into a sticker or some kind of art, it’s always something that is connected to death...No one’s dealing with that. This program, if it does what it needs to do, it will address that issue.”
In a state where youth suicide is on the rise, there would also be training for students on preventing violence to themselves, and recognizing signs of despair in classmates and friends.
As Molina explained, input from the 42 members of the youth commission emphasized the need for truly wraparound mental health services in schools.
“Why we signed on is because, for example, after the shooting at Reynolds High School (in 2014), we had students form the youth commission that were really impacted and said afterward they didn’t receive the support they needed,” Molina said. “I think there’s an opportunity to highlight student perspectives on how do we support students and families?”
“I think about when my nephew got murdered, and there was no resources for his siblings” in the aftermath, she said. Instead, she added, the interactions grieving families have with investigators can feel like an interrogation of the survivors.
Molina is hopeful the health department’s STOP program will develop through a much more youth-centric approach.
“I think this would allow us to ensure students are part of the process of creating and implementing a model that works for schools, seeing youth priorities, and what they’re undergoing during these times too,” she said.
If approved, grant funding would be made available Oct. 1.