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Blount Schools employee wins state award for behavioral health programs

posted Oct 3, 2016, 6:29 AM by Chris Whitehorne   [ updated Oct 3, 2016, 6:31 AM ]
Blount County Schools is the state's benchmark for behavioral health programs.
Blount County Coordinated School Health Coordinator Mary Beth Blevins won the inaugural Award for Excellence in the Area of School Counseling, Psychological and Social Services, which was presented by the Tennessee Department of Education's Office of Coordinated School Health. The state recognized Blevins's "instrumental" role in the development of community partnerships that resulted in additional programs and services for Blount County's students.

"I'm honored and humbled to receive this inaugural award on behalf of our school district," she said. "We set this benchmark as a result of our leadership team, including (Blount County) Director of Schools Rob Britt and the (Blount County) Board of Education, investing in and possessing the vision to remove these nonacademic barriers to learning. "Many other people also invested in our district's initiatives and programs. Our school counselors, our school nurses, our SROs, our teachers, our families, our community partners."

In collaboration with Cherokee Health Systems, Blevins developed a school-based counseling program that is available for all students needing care regardless of their ability to pay. Tennessee CSH Coordinator Sara Smith advises it serves as a "state best practices model." Cherokee Health Systems, which is a federally qualified health center, provides services to all students regardless of their ability to pay. Its in-kind donation for the past school year was $147,132.

To date, the corporation has assisted more than 720 students and provided more than 5,600 sessions. It was piloted during the 2010-11 school year, then implemented in high schools for the 2011-12 school year, middle schools for the 2012-13 school year and elementary schools for the 2013-14 school year. The counseling program is in response to the district's evaluation of its earlier efficacy, Blevins said. "The Blount County Mental Health Consortium determined that it was too complex and reached a point where things stopped. We found a six-week to six-month waiting period at that time for behavioral health services. We recognized that something needed to change and started a mental health team in Blount County Schools composed of behavioral health providers, community members, the Family Resource Center, school counselors and teachers."

Employees are asked now to identify students who they believe are in need of behavioral services and refer them to school counselors, she said. School counselors discuss perceived issues with students and make contact with parents/guardians of students who express an interest in the services. If a parent/guardian approves their student receiving services, the counselor contacts Cherokee Health Systems, which establishes communications with the family. Medical professionals attend to students at their home schools, Blevins said. School counselors attach student schedules to referrals and work with students to reduce academic disruptions. Officials avoid academic areas, if possible, and never schedule sessions for the same academic class in consecutive weeks.
Additional efforts

In addition to the counseling program, the district also offers Mental Health 101 to Heritage High and William Blount High. Mental Health Association of East Tennessee provides the program at no cost. "We already covered nutrition and physical activity in wellness," Blevins said. "As a faculty and staff, we discovered a need to educate students about coping skills for stress and how to recognize whether an issue requires attention."

Blevins facilitated Darkness to Light's Stewards of Children program for community parents and staff. The evidence-informed prevention solution addresses child sexual abuse and practical prevention training. She also provided all elementary school counselors with the Michigan Model for Health, which offers sequential lesson plans for every grade level. The comprehensive, skills-based health curriculum's goal is to help young people live happier, healthier lives.

The supervisor further secured grant funding to complete LifeSkills training, which aims to prevent substance abuse and violence by targeting the major psychological and social factors behind the behaviors. Daily/teen living teachers offer the program to sixth- through eighth-graders. She is a certified suicide prevention trainer as well. She has led Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) training at two Blount County schools — Fairview Elementary and Rockford Elementary — and presented the same information at a statewide conference. 

Blevins has advanced bullying prevention education and helped coordinate area assemblies, featuring Nashville band Spencer's Own, that educated middle-schoolers about bullying. She also participates on the UpLift Planning Committee, which focuses on providing stress reduction for staff and students during exam time. Blevins, who serves on the Blount County Community Health Initiative's Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention Alliance Executive Committee, also partnered with HOSA members to educate high-schoolers about healthy relationships and provide resources for students dealing with unhealthy relationships. She said all of these efforts boil down to one thing: student needs. "We really care about students and their families. We want our students to have a happy, healthy childhood that leads into a happy, healthy adolescence. We want them to be prepared for a happy, healthy adulthood."

By Matthew Stewart -The Daily Times