class act Best practices in action

class act
Best practices in action

CSBA's Golden Bell Awards Winner logo

class act
Best practices in action

CSBA's Golden Bell Awards Winner logo

One COE’s efforts to expand and improve supports for students and staff in crisis

four people standing together while the two people in the middle hold an award together in front of a golden bell awards background

In survey after survey, education leaders, teachers, families and even students themselves have repeatedly ranked youth mental health as a top concern in recent years — both before and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following a personal or school-based crisis, the need for immediate, targeted services is critical for supporting young people and keeping them on track. That’s where Orange County Department of Education’s Crisis Response Network (CRN) comes in. Since 2008, this Golden Bell Award-winning program has offered support to school communities experiencing traumatic events.

In addition to assisting in making timely notifications to schools regarding deaths, accidents and incidents, “CRN collaborates with school districts, using the Critical Incident Stress Foundation’s (ICISF) Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) model, to support students, staff, families and school communities in crisis to process loss, grief and trauma to restore functioning and promote post-traumatic growth,” said Mayu Iwatani, OCDE’s manager of mental health and wellness care coordination. “The CISM model includes triage and strategic planning, individual and group interventions, and ongoing support for responders following a critical incident. CRN’s prevention, intervention and postvention efforts are centered on providing a safe and supportive environment for individuals and groups to share their story, normalize stress reactions and identify coping mechanisms.”

Under the guidance of OCDE’s Integrated Supports and Services unit, the network provides assistance to the county’s 29 school districts, private, charter and faith-based campuses during emergencies, including substance overdoses, grief and loss, natural disasters and other issues through all stages of crisis readiness, response and recovery, Iwatani said.

The team customizes training programs to meet the specific and immediate needs of the community while empowering districts to create their own well-rounded crisis response plans rooted in evidence-based practices.

There is an astounding need for this work. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide became the second leading cause of death among children ages 10 to 14 during the pandemic, and mental health-related emergency room visits among adolescents ages 5 to 11 and 12 to 17 jumped 24 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

“Since returning to in-person learning in the 2020–21 school year, CRN has provided training to over 720 students, 400 staff members, 430 parents/guardians and 280 youth service providers. In addition, over 280 school professionals have been trained and certified in the ICISF CISM model,” Iwatani said. “Impact outcomes for CRN reflect the quantity and quality of direct services provided to schools in the wake of an incident. Annually, CRN serves an average of 600 students, 500 staff and 100 parents/caregivers impacted by crisis.”

Over the last 10 years, Iwatani said surveys of those who received services show positive impacts have been made — including among staff. Of the school personnel who received CRN services, 94 percent strongly agreed that CRN services were satisfactory, 97 percent reported being treated with courtesy and respect, and 96 percent would recommend CRN to a colleague.

The innovative ways in which CRN collaborates within and across agencies, and its role in expanding the network of mental health services provided to Orange County school communities, has been a critical element.

“CRN collaborates with OCDE Prevention Education, School Safety and Violence Prevention, and Threat Assessment teams to streamline school-based services. School districts have relied on CRN’s notifications, services and long-standing relationships with the Orange County Coroner’s Office, Trauma Intervention Program Orange County, local police departments and first responders to allow for timely and accurate death notifications and provision of services,” Iwatani said. “CRN also sits on the Orange County Child Death Review Team, a cross-disciplinary work group that reviews causes of death and provides data-based prevention and intervention recommendations.”

Other partners include HOPE Animal Assisted Crisis Response, a nonprofit organization that deploys trained crisis dog and handler teams that Iwatani said have been invaluable in increasing access and receptiveness to crisis services.

And to ensure continuity of care beyond immediate incidents, CRN facilitates referrals to school-based mental health services, Employee Assistance Programs, victim advocacy organizations and community agencies that are able to provide ongoing, long-term care.

“CRN is a tangible outworking of OCDE’s Strategic Plan, which prioritizes support for the whole child that assures learning environments are safe, healthy, supportive and foster a strong sense of community,” Iwatani said. “As governing bodies and school systems have increasingly sought to integrate teaching of coping strategies in classroom settings and wellness spaces at the school sites, CRN has been privileged to provide crisis support, bridging gaps in mental health care access and service delivery.”

— Alisha Kirby