Eight Stamford schools lack mental health support, state report says. District officials looking into it.

Davenport Ridge Elementary School in Stamford, Conn. on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. The school recently made a list of 157 schools across the state that were identified as being in need of more mental health support for students. Another seven Stamford schools also made the list.

Davenport Ridge Elementary School in Stamford, Conn. on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. The school recently made a list of 157 schools across the state that were identified as being in need of more mental health support for students. Another seven Stamford schools also made the list.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

STAMFORD — Eight Stamford schools made a list of 157 educational institutions in Connecticut deemed to be most in need of mental health support for students.

Davenport Ridge, Northeast, Westover, Hart and Newfield elementary schools were included in the list, which was part of a report recently released by a Department of Public Health task force. The other schools include Scofield Magnet Middle School, Rogers International School and the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering.

According to the report, those schools could benefit from more robust mental health care services, especially in the form of school-based health centers, or SBHCs, which are centers inside of schools that offer students mental and physical care services at no cost.

The statewide report recommends expanding SBHCs and telehealth services for students in the schools that made the list.

“We know what we do works,” said Ann Gionet, Health Program Supervisor for the state Department of Public Health, who co-chaired the working group that wrote the state report. “It gets kids health care quickly, it keeps kids in school, it reduces absenteeism, it allows kids to become drivers of their own health care services.”

The health care provider Family Centers runs centers at Stamford’s two biggest high schools, Stamford High and Westhill. Each center includes at least one social worker, a nurse practitioner and an office assistant. At the Westhill location, a dentist and dental hygienist are also available.

Dennis Torres, chief health officer for Family Centers, said that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health needs have gone “through the roof.

“The need is there and the state needs to expand and help expand,” he said.

Family Centers also has a hub at Rippowam Middle School, which can be accessed by students at AITE, since the schools share the same campus. A similar set-up exists at Dolan Middle School, which is in close proximity to Toquam Magnet Elementary School. Yet another center exists at Cloonan Middle School.

Justin Martin, spokesperson for Stamford schools, said on Friday that central office staff was unaware of the state report on mental health, which was originally released in January but updated in February.

“It would be premature for us to respond until we have had a chance to review and verify the report and its findings,” he wrote in an emailed response to a list of questions about the district’s mental health offerings.

Many school superintendents across the state have spoken out, however, calling for more mental health supports.

“I know there have been discussions about trying to have more sites in-district where possible, so if there’s opportunity to add more, I think as a district we would welcome it,” Danbury Superintendent Kevin Walston said.

Michael Testani, superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools, said in January that schools in his district need help addressing mental health needs.

“The behaviors that we’re seeing amongst our children are really concerning,” Testani said. “Kids in our city were suffering from trauma-related mental health issues prior to the pandemic, but this is at a whole new level.”

In Stamford, Family Centers also provides social workers to certain schools, such as AITE, Stillmeadow Elementary School and Turn of River Middle School.

In every office, there is at least one person who speaks Spanish, Torres said.

In general, he said Family Centers have noticed an increase in anxiety and depression since the onset of the coronavirus.

“When COVID was at its peak, these kids were traumatized,” he said.

The beginning of this school year in Stamford, when students returned to full-time in-person learning, also saw an increase in violent behavior, data show.

At the city’s two biggest high schools, fights between students led to 20 or so arrests.

At Rippowam and Cloonan, multiple students were suspended for participation in a video “battle” that included images of students using their hands to imitate the firing of a gun directed at a camera.

Stamford was also one of many communities that reported vandalism in schools because of a TikTok challenge named “devious licks.” That trend involved students sharing videos of themselves destroying school property including mirrors, sinks and soap and towel dispensers.

Health care provider Community Health Center also offers behavioral health support in Stamford schools, specifically at Roxbury, Northeast, Springdale, Stark and Hart elementary schools. A behavioral health clinician is stationed at each.

Yvette Highsmith Francis, regional vice president for Community Health Center, said there are ongoing discussions to expand services to additional elementary schools.

“From my lens, these services need to be available in every school,” Francis said.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought on a national youth mental health crisis, and in Connecticut, that has resulted in hospitals experiencing a spike in young people seeking mental health support through emergency room visits, officials have said.

Stamford Hospital was not been immune.

“Like other hospitals in the state, we’ve seen a recent increase in behavioral health cases presenting to our emergency department,” said Alan Weiner, chairman of the hospital’s department of emergency medicine. “Presently, pediatric patients seeking behavioral health care has risen at a much higher rate than for adults. This is an emerging trend that can be caused by a number of factors such as post-pandemic stress/fatigue, lack of social interaction and ongoing current events.”

Before the pandemic, 14.4 percent of adolescents in the state reported significant depressive episodes, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In 2021, mental health care professionals in Connecticut met just 15 percent of the need, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services based on designated Health Professional Shortage Areas statistics.

That’s why officials have turned their attention to schools as a place to provide these much needed supports, they said.

Gionet doesn’t have a cost estimate for closing the gaps identified in the report, but said that “any amount of money that’s added to create new school-based health centers is going to be really important to that school where it’s put.”

Includes reporting by staff writers Currie Engel, Julia Perkins and Mary Katherine Wildeman