Approximately one in three American high school students experienced poor mental health during the coronavirus pandemic over the past two years, according to a 2022 study by the Centers for Disease …
Approximately one in three American high school students experienced poor mental health during the coronavirus pandemic over the past two years, according to a 2022 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Considering statistics like that, many school districts across the U.S. are looking for new ways to address mental health and discipline in the classroom, and the Port Townsend School District will be bringing new hire Darrell Thomas to assist the district in that regard.
He will assist with mental health services, restorative approaches to discipline, mediation, and supporting student unions and advisory programs.
The director of wellness, a newly-formed position, aims to improve student behavior and mental health following two years of the coronavirus pandemic, which has negatively impacted many adolescents in school systems nationwide.
Thomas was hired after an extensive application process of speaking with planning, equity, and wellness committees, as well as parents and students, according to the school district. Previously working with juvenile services through Jefferson County for four years, officials said Thomas will bring a restorative approach to student well-being in the school district.
“Human dignity is a need that we all have. If that need isn’t met it causes tension in our relationship with one another and tarnishes our ability to work together for the greater good,” Thomas said.
“We created this new position … and we’re so excited that Darrell accepted our offer, and he will be a great asset to our district,” said District Superintendent Linda Rosenbury.
In an interview with The Leader, Thomas outlined his approach to his new role.
“When I saw that [Director of Wellness] position, it intrigued me because it wasn’t just how I influence the district or help the district and the youth … it was also policy and other things like helping staff navigate challenges, whether that’s staff and students or staff and staff,” he said.
“It gives me an opportunity to be more creative and be able to get to the root issue.”
Thomas noted past behavioral discipline practices used by schools nationwide, such as out-of-school suspensions and other punitive measures.
“There’s a lot of things within school systems that haven’t worked, and districts are trying to figure out what’s working … traditional ways of discipline have pushed a lot of kids outside of the school system,” Thomas said.
In a time when school communities are vastly important to adolescents, Thomas’ approach is to navigate conflict through getting to the center of students’ problems and assisting them without using heavy discipline or ostracizing the youth from their peers.
Part of his approach to improving the wellbeing of students and school staff in the district is by focusing on the psychological needs of the school community.
“Looking at [Maslow’s] Hierarchy of Needs, whether that’s food, shelter, safety, security, a loving and caring environment, if those things aren’t met then you begin to see kids not performing or you don’t see their best because those basic needs that we need as humans aren’t being met,” Thomas said. “That’s really one of the things that I want to focus on. It goes the same with staff, too.”
“You’re not just a school ID number; you’re not just an employee number. You’re a person that has values. You’re a person that has feelings. You’re a person that has dignity,” he said.
“That’s the restorative approach; it’s valuing peoples dignity and being able to help them navigate difficult situations.”
Thomas will also emphasize connection with marginalized groups within the district such as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and LGBTQ+ communities.
“Making sure they feel empowered, they feel connected, like they belong, respected, all those different things,” is vital, Thomas said.
“Being able to connect with them will be important.”
Another role Thomas will play as the new director of wellness is that of mediator, which he has years of experience with.
Thomas received a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice and human services, as well an associate of science degree in business administration from Colorado Technical University in Colorado Springs. He has worked with youth for more than 10 years. Some of his experience include working with youth experiencing homelessness, youth in the juvenile justice system, youth in foster care, and Tribal child welfare. He is also a restorative practitioner with the ability to facilitate circles and mediations.
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