Finding and helping troubled students


In the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Conn., many people are concerned about making sure a tragedy like that doesn’t happen in our schools.

It’s not only a matter of limiting access to firearms, but also one of mental health. Rockville Centre Schools Superintendent Dr. William Johnson said that the district has measures in place to identify and help at-risk children before they become a danger to themselves and others.

“There are two sides to the coin: one side is preparing kids to do well with one another,” Johnson said. “The other is, can you identify problematic behavior in kids and head off more serious problems? And the answer to that is, I think we can.”

Johnson explained that, if a student is identified to be troubled, the district does a number of things. “One, we provide direct service to the child,” he said. “Two, we get the parents involved. Three, we generally insist on some kind of involvement in therapeutic activities outside of school. And four, if there’s a disability involved, we’re involved on a counseling basis as well as an instructional basis. So we can modify the whole environment in which we’re provided instruction.”

Every school in Rockville Centre has at least one social worker and psychologist (South Side High School has two psychologists). The middle and high schools also have guidance counselors. While they all serve different functions in the school, they all work together to help students.

“Not only do we have social workers assigned to every school and psychologists assigned to every school to implement programs like [character education],” said Noreen Leahy, the assistant superintendent for special education and pupil services, “but they’re also there to observe students and kind of be the first line of defense in case we identify a developing emotional or psychological problem or deficiency.”

The guidance counselors, social workers and guidance counselors all help the students in different ways. The primary responsibility of guidance counselors, Leahy said, is to make sure students have all the necessary credentials to graduate high school and move on to post-school life, whether it be college, work or the military.

Social workers focus on the social and emotional well-being of the students, as well as physical needs that may arise, such as homelessness and lack of nutrition.

“The psychologist’s primary responsibility is to be somewhat of a psychometric statistician for us,” said Leahy. “They do the testing for special education, they will write up the reports of that testing, they’ll meet with parents and conduct meetings to make sure the special education programs are being implemented and run properly.”

All three have a counseling component to their job. “The social workers tend to do more of the psychological counseling, but that’s not to say the guidance counselors and psychologists don’t do that as well,” said Leahy.

Johnson said that guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists are also all trained to know the signs of dangerous and troubled behavior in students. “The one that crops up more frequently than anything is kids that are suicidal or become suicidal because they are victims and are just silently kind of walking through the world,” said Johnson. “And I know we’ve been successful in getting kids into hospitals, into all kinds of therapeutic situations outside of school and have probably saved some lives.”

The district also has measures in place, Johnson said, in the event that a student is identified to be a threat to others.

“The special education system is built so we can find an appropriate setting for these kids in case this is found to not be an appropriate setting for them,” said Johnson. “It’s my obligation to education kids, but not necessarily at South Side. So we can, working with families, put kids on home instruction. We can put them in therapeutic settings. We can provide educational services when they are in hospital settings. We do a lot to encourage and support families when it’s recognized they have a real problem.”

There’s only so much the school district can do, though. Leahy said that problems sometimes arise when students leave the structure of school. Also, some psychoses present themselves in early adulthood.

“In a very real sense, this is a community problem,” Johnson said. “There are people in the neighborhood who have eyes and ears. If they see something that they see as an aberration, they have to be good enough to call the mayor, call the police, call the schools, call somebody and say, ‘We’ve got a problem and I’m not sure how to deal with it.’ Too many people just close their eyes to that.”