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Winter 2016 -
Stanley C. Mantooth, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
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Just as the holiday season was approaching, Ventura County received a wakeup call about a critical issue that too often remains in the shadows. Four local teenagers - three of them in high school - took their own lives over a two month period. Then, at the start of the new year, came news that another local student had died by suicide. The incidents were unrelated, but they shined a spotlight on the importance of addressing the social and emotional needs of our kids. 

While suicide is a rare extreme, a lack of attention to emotional well-being can lead to substance abuse, depression and poor performance in school. The good news is that teachers and school administrators are increasingly taking action to help students stay mentally healthy as they pursue their education. In this edition of Focus on Education, we take a look at some of the programs and interventions that have the power to build bright futures and even save lives. 

Stan Mantooth 
Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
Emotional Well-being is Critical to Success in School

California Healthy Kids Survey results
for Ventura County 9th and 11th grade students
When a child is too stressed, depressed or distracted to focus, the opportunities to learn are greatly diminished. From bullying to discrimination to family troubles, there are many factors that can chip away at a young person's self-confidence and ability to cope with the social and academic demands of school.

"Mental health is not something you can see physically most of the time. It's something that is really hard to identify," said Dawn Anderson, Director of VCOE's department of Comprehensive Health and Prevention Programs. She adds that, "A lot of parents or teachers may think of it as just teens acting out. They're depressed but it's not really depression. They're just going through a mood swing. They don't ever acknowledge that it could be a true mental health issue."

The biennial California Healthy Kids Survey provides a window into the mental state of Ventura County kids. It shows a slight but steady increase in the number of ninth and eleventh graders who report feeling sad or hopeless.

Fortunately, free help is available for young people who are struggling with emotional issues. School counselors and your local school district office can provide assistance in times of need, and the following resources are available to everyone:

For Students with Disabilities

The road to emotional health comes with unique challenges for students with disabilities. The Ventura County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) offers a variety of services to meet those needs. "We believe if students have the appropriate supports provided when they are needed, we can avoid deeper problems requiring more intrusive interventions later on," said Mary Samples, Assistant Superintendent for SELPA. More information about SELPA’s social and emotional services for students with disabilities is available on their website or by calling 805-437-1560.

A Survivor's Story

Regina and James Poynter
Photo credit: Michael Coons, Acorn Newspapers
No one knows what goes through the mind of a person who dies by suicide better than someone who has survived it. Regina Poynter of Camarillo is one of those people.

Today she is a proud and happy mother and grandmother with a fulfilling career, but it wasn't always that way. A childhood scarred by physical and emotional abuse pushed her to attempt suicide numerous times, the first when she was just 12 years old. "The pain was so overwhelming for me at such a young age that I just wanted to stop it and the only way I could think of was to try to end my life," she said.

Poynter was able to find her way out of the darkness thanks to professional treatment and the support of her husband James. "It was a huge turning point for me because here I had somebody who loved me despite all of the ugliness that comes along with a mental illness," she said. "He rescued me. He became the person who held my hope until I was able to find recovery."

While not everyone is fortunate to have a strong support system, Poynter says it's critical for students who are struggling to talk to someone, whether it's a friend, a counselor or even a hotline volunteer. "When you're in that pit where it seems like the only way out, find someone to reach out to. That can be the beginning of experiencing the hope that I now have."

Free Suicide Prevention Training Available from VCOE

Miss, dismiss or avoid. All too often, those are the ways people react to signs that a friend or loved one may be thinking of taking their own life. Getting people to act on those nagging feelings is a key lesson of safeTALK, a suicide prevention program offered by the Ventura County Office of Education.

safeTALK instructor
Gabe Teran
safeTALK teaches that the direct approach is best. If you're worried someone is thinking of hurting themselves, just ask. "That can be the little crack in the door they need to feel that somebody finally heard what they're trying to say," according to safeTALK instructor Gabe Teran. "If we don't ask, it could be the one time we could have saved somebody's life."

More than a thousand educators and students in Ventura County have undergone the safeTALK training. It takes only three hours and is offered free of charge thanks to funding through Ventura County Behavioral Health and the California Mental Health Services Act.

To schedule a safeTALK training for your school or community group, contact Jaclyn Bull at or call 805-437-1370.

Additional information about safeTALK is available here
Schools Increasing Focus on Students' Emotional Needs

Dr. Jane Wagmeister
VCOE Executive Director
Curriculum and Instruction
"A child comes to school with two buckets - one is for academics and the other is social and emotional," said Dr. Jane Wagmeister, Executive Director of VCOE's Curriculum and Instruction department. "If the social and emotional bucket is too heavy for the student to lift, then he may not have the strength for the academic one. We know as educators that if you can't connect with a child, they are not available to learn."

Increasingly, Ventura County schools are relying on new approaches to addressing kids' emotional needs so they're ready and motivated to learn. They include:
  • MTSS - Multi-Tiered System of Supports
  • PBIS - Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports
  • RTI2 - Response to Instruction and Intervention
  • CHAMPS - Conversation, Help, Activity, Movement, Participation, Success
It's an acronym soup that all boils down to the same goal...helping kids feel good about themselves and giving them the social and emotional skills to succeed in school.

One of the biggest differences from the traditional way of doing things is an intentional focus on the positive. Research shows most students receive only one positive response for every five negative responses. These new approaches aim to reverse that ratio. For example, "In between class periods, you can see teachers outside the classroom greeting the students," Wagmeister said. "They say hello, ask them about their weekend, compliment their new haircut - all of those are positive interactions."

One of the shooters in the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado reportedly spared a classmate simply because the student had once said hello to him. "That's a drastic comparison, but it shows the power of making connections with students, making sure they feel they're not invisible," Wagmeister said.

Ventura County schools that have made great strides by implementing these approaches will be highlighted at the RtI2 Symposium and Gold Ribbon Schools Showcase on January 28. 
Friday Night Live Grows Student Leaders and Self-Esteem

When Santa Paula High School launched a chapter of Friday Night Live, Adriana Almazan was among the first to sign up. She hoped the program would give her a way to channel her energy into making positive change and she wasn't disappointed. "I realized we're helping other students stay happy and active and engaged," she said.

Adriana Almazan
Ventura County Friday Night Live
Project Specialist
Founded in Sacramento in 1984, Friday Night Live has grown into a statewide organization that gives kids a chance to develop leadership skills while combating substance abuse and engaging in community service projects.

Almazan says it's a perfect outlet for students who are at risk of self-destructive behaviors. "In middle school and high school, sometimes you don't feel like people really know you, they don't really see you. Friday Night Live is very inclusive and lets everybody get involved to see what they can do to make a difference."

Almazan was proud to make a difference with a project called Cinco de Mayo con Orgullo, which means Cinco de Mayo with Pride. It highlighted the way alcoholic beverage companies distort the meaning of a holiday that has long had historical significance for Mexican Americans. "It's not like people go out and get drunk to celebrate the Gettysburg Address," she said. "I never made that connection until FNL."

Friday Night Live mentors from Santa Susana High School coach students from Hillside Middle School in Simi Valley
Ventura County Friday Night Live also has a mentoring program that allows high schoolers to pass on their skills and knowledge to middle school students. FNL mentoring programs are currently active in six high schools and six middle schools from Ventura to Simi Valley.

After entering college, Almazan continued her involvement with FNL by becoming a mentor for high school students in the program. She then used the skills she learned to land a job with VCOE as a Friday Night Live project specialist. "I still kind of feel like I'm on cloud nine," she said. "Because I get to wake up and go to a job that helps in the way I did in high school, so it's really nice."

More information is available on the VCOE website.
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