Resource warrior: MVCSC teacher advocates for more mental health tools following district tragedy in the spring

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One of the Indiana Dept. of Education’s Top 10 Teachers of the Year is using her platform to advocate for additional statewide mental health initiatives for teachers and students statewide.

Deb Thomas, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Mt. Vernon Middle School, said she wants to advocate more for mental health resources following a tragedy Mt. Vernon Community School Corp. experienced in the spring.

Mt. Vernon Community School Corp. students, parents and community members recently participated in a Rise Above It Mental Health Workshop, which featured sessions on anxiety, addiction, vaping, depression, suicide, grief, loss, anger management, social media and more. More than 40 mental health vendors participated.

What I’m advocating for is statewide trauma-informed education,” Thomas said. “We need more awareness, resources and training for educators in Indiana. This issue really came to light for me after we went through an experience in the spring where we lost a staff member. We went through our own level of traumatic grief here at the middle school, so I’ve really got a heart for these children who have been traumatized.”

The staff member was Mt. Vernon Middle School teacher Adam Bisesi, who was struck and killed by a dump truck in Carmel in April.

Thomas said the experience allowed her to empathize with traumatized students in the classroom.

“Statistics tell us approximately two-thirds of children come to us by the age of 16 have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime,” Thomas said. “So, they come to us at school surrounded in fear and anger and distrust. We crack those barriers.”

Mt. Vernon Middle School Principal Ben Williams said the district has spent the past several months researching the effects of secondary traumatic stress caregivers and educators may experience if they are educating children who have suffered trauma.

“If you can imagine having a class of 25 to 30 kids and a good number of them are dealing with different aspects of trauma in their life, it can really weigh upon a professional educator or caregiver,” Williams said.

Thomas said because she is advocating for mental health and trauma-informed education, she wants legislative support and funding to enable each school in the state to equip teachers with necessary training.

“In my research, what I have found is there are many states right now way ahead of us on this, especially states out west like Oregon and Missouri,” Thomas said. “Indiana has some catching up to do, in my opinion, on this topic. This was definitely part of my message to the Indiana Dept. of Education and the 2020 Indiana Teacher of the Year selection committee.”

MVCSC Director of Communications Maria Bond said better mental health programs and more resources are items society in general is striving for.

“It’s not just Mt. Vernon, it is across the state and across the nation,” Bond said. “It’s just rising to the level of we do need more funding, we do need more assistance and resources to help students learn the best they can. We are not unique in needs for mental health. We are among statewide and nationwide educators and students who need more mental health resources. That’s why it’s a hot topic right now, because it is universal.”

Thomas recently submitted a grant application for Hearts of Hope, a program that provides ceramic hearts to paint and gift to another school after a loss or trauma.

“We were given Hearts of Hope from an elementary school in the HSE Schools district,” Thomas said. “We would like to do the same and give it to some other places, and we will be hearing (on the grant) soon.”

The grant request was made through the Mt. Vernon Education Foundation. It is for approximately $700. Grant recipients haven’t been announced.

As of press time, the 2020 Indiana Teacher of the Year had not been announced. 

Deb Thomas is a Top 10 Teacher of the Year who is using the platform to advocate for additional statewide mental health initiatives for teachers and students.

Mt. Vernon Community School Corp. mental health efforts

Besides employing one of the Top 10 Teachers of the Year, Mt. Vernon Community School Corp. is taking steps in other areas to increase its mental health resources for students, teachers and the community.

  • Rise Above It: Mt. Vernon High School conducted an annual “Rise Above It” mental health workshop Sept. 11 for adults and student ages 13 and up. The workshop included sessions on anxiety, addiction, vaping, smoking, sexting, depression, suicide, grief, loss, anger management, social media and other topics. It was sponsored by Hancock Health’s Healthy 365. More than 40 mental health vendors participated.
  • Suicide prevention: All MVCSC teachers are trained on the QPR (question, persuade, refer) Institute program for suicide prevention.
  • Counselors: Each school has a counselor from Community Health Network, in addition to its own school counselor or social worker. The Mt. Vernon Middle School Counseling Dept. received a Gold Star Recognition from the Indiana School Counselor Association
  • Second Step: All elementary schools and the Mini-Marauder Preschool teach Second Step, a social-emotional program that promotes mental wellness for students.
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