When an unexpected tragedy happened in Claiborne Parish involving the death of a student, Webster Parish School staff members were able to help.
“Our crisis team was asked as a neighboring parish to respond to the crisis,” said Jill Waltemate, Student Assistance Program Director and Coordinator of Safe & Drug Free Schools and Communities Program. “We all try to work together.”
A team of Licensed Practicing Counselors (LPCs) traveled from their daily jobs in Webster Parish to Homer High School and Homer Elementary to provide services to students, staff, family and friends who were effected by the loss of a student due to suicide.
“Anytime there is a student death or staff death we respond,” Waltemate said. “A suicide is handled differently than a death by a vehicle accident or illness. It is important counselors be versed on how to handle a suicide in a school setting.”
Waltemate said that suicide is handled in a way as to not glamorize the action or encourage other students to attempt it.
“We don’t allow memorials in the school or things of that nature,” she said. “It is not a healthy thing to do in a school system.
“We want to discourage students from thinking that, ‘Well, this person got all this attention because they chose to commit suicide,’” Waltemate continued. “We encourage kids to mourn and grieve, but we do not allow other things to happen at the school.”
While the circumstances were tragic, Waltemate says they were glad to be in a position to be able to provide services.
“We were more than happy to lend a hand, and I know they would do the same for us in a heartbeat,” she said. “While it is a sad time, you hope that your presence made a difference for someone – that a staff member, student, friend or family member is in a better position to cope.”
Claiborne Parish School Board Superintendent Dr. Janice Williams complimented the work of the counselors in a letter to the Webster Parish School Board.
The letter expressed “sincere appreciation for the services and support received by the counselors of Webster Parish Schools.
“The counseling team was very knowledgeable, professional and provided the staff and students with techniques to deal with the suicide of our student,” the letter read. “(The counselors) were phenomenal. It serves as a great comfort to know that in times of tragedy we have friends on whom we can call to assist.”
Waltameate plans on providing training to the staff of Claiborne Parish over the course of the summer.
“I will be going to do some in-service training with their staff,” she said. “All of my staff has suicide awareness and prevention training.”
Webster Parish schools have plans and guidelines in place that outline what to do during times of crises.
“The superintendent is notified, then I am called and put the team in motion,” Waltemate said. “We are fortunate to have people here that are trained for circumstances such as this.”
The Student Assistance Program was initially funded by a grant from the Office of Mental and Substance Abuse Services.
The grant was for four years and ended in June of 2010.
“Governor Jindal made some cuts and the grant for our program was one of them,” Waltemate said. “State-wide, there were 18 programs funded with behavioral health grants and all were eliminated.”
The contract with the counselors was picked up by Webster Parish School’s general fund. The contract does not cover benefits for the counselors – only salaries.
“This is the fifth year the services have been provided in Webster Parish,” Waltemate said. “We have served several thousand students as far as mental health needs, crisis intervention and on-going mental health needs.”
Waltemate believes the Webster Parish School system is the only parish to offer a program focused on bullying, which is staffed by the LPC’s she manages.
“If a bullying problem is reported and makes its way up to me, we assign a separate counselor to both the victim and the bully,” she said. “I don’t know any other parish that offers that. We don’t do that for every case of bullying, but we do for extreme cases.”
Waltemate is hopeful that even though the school system is facing a budget crisis, the program will be able to operate.
“These people and this program are very much needed in our school system,” she said. “They are licensed people that handle an enormous number of crisis and mental health issues in our schools.”
Students who are provided services are monitored and show improvement.
“A child who is struggling with a mental issue – or maybe just having a hard time because of circumstance – that child has less referrals, less discipline problems, better attendance and less suspensions when they can have a LPC assigned to them,” Waltemate said. “We are able to monitor and help that student, and it is proven that these services definitely improve the outlook for the student.”
She also feels that because students are less disruptive in class and have less time out of class for issues, it creates an environment better suited for learning.
“Having these services in schools improves the schools climate,” Waltemate said.