Officials Explain Controversial Student Counseling Program

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A long-running student assistance program that provides support groups for anger management, grief-loss and other subjects to 2nd- through 12th-graders has recently come under fire from some parents for the way participation is solicited.

While parents must give their consent before students are allowed to participate, students are invited to join the program before parents are notified. Some parents believe that younger children are not qualified to make such decisions.

"We send out this little thing at the beginning of the semester asking the kids if they're interested," said Linda Gibson, a prevention coordinator for the program. "Most of the kids already know what it is."

While the program has been operating for more than 10 years, what has apparently upset some parents is that Rim Guidance Center is partnering with the Payson Unified School District on the program this year for the first time. Some parents worry that the involvement of Rim Guidance, a division of Southwest Behavioral Health Services, links their children with mental health concerns.

"There is some confusion over Rim Guidance's involvement," Gibson said. "There is still a stigma with mental health. People think we are going to refer their child. But all that group is providing is financial support.

"We used to have enough money from federal grants so schools could pay a stipend to the facilitators. But each year, the grant money has dwindled to less and less. So Rim Guidance came to us and said, 'We want to get involved with the schools and help support some prevention programs. What can we do to help?'"

Mandated change

According to Darlene Duncan, assistant director and prevention coordinator at Rim Guidance, the change was mandated by the state.

"Schools have lost their prevention dollars and that money has been given to behavioral health, so we have partnered with the schools on prevention," Duncan said. "The reason (the state) is doing it is to try to make prevention uniform."

Rim Guidance is paying the facilitators. The only information shared with Rim Guidance by the schools is a feedback sheet that identifies participants by race and age, but not by name.

"We say something like, 'Everybody spoke freely and openly today,'" Gibson said. "But that's basically all the information we give them."

The groups, which meet weekly for either 30 or 60 minutes, are generally comprised of nine or 10 students and two facilitators. About 165 students are involved district-wide, 50 at Payson High School, 25 at Rim Country Middle School, and the balance at the three elementary schools.

"We try to run with at least two facilitators so we don't miss a session if somebody is absent," Gibson said. Groups generally stay together for nine weeks. While PHS students miss class to attend the sessions, elementary students meet during recess and RCMS students during an elective class.

Some of the groups are "just caring and sharing programs," Gibson said. But PHS and RCMS students are also involved in groups on anger management, grief/loss, alcohol/drug prevention, gangs, food addictions, children of alcoholics, and other topics.

"In the grief/loss sessions, we don't just talk about death, but any type of loss," Gibson said. "The kid says, 'I'm not the only one having these problems. There's other people in the same boat."

All groups also operate under a strict confidentiality rule.

"The only exception." Gibson said, "is that you can talk about what you said in group, but not what others said. Also, if someone shares about being hurt or somebody else being hurt then that has to be ... reported to the proper authorities and we have had instances of that."

The Student Assistance Program used by the district was developed by Cheryl Watkins, executive director of the Chemical Awareness Training Institute in Phoenix, a non-profit organization dedicated to the development and training of school personnel in student assistance programs. It was developed, according to its training manual, as "a comprehensive primary prevention and early intervention program ... that includes a systematic effort to educate, identify, assess, refer and support students with drug abuse problems and other high-risk behaviors which are interfering with a student's education and life development."

All facilitators undergo a three-day training program. Before becoming a full-time facilitator, Gibson taught physical science at PHS.

Much of the problem with parents, she believes, lies in the consent form itself.

"Things get touchy with parents because they see Southwest Behavioral at the top and they think, 'Why is my child involved with a mental health institute,'" she said. For that reason, some participating schools have created a consent form that includes the school's name along with Southwest's.

"I haven't had any complaints on my end, but I have had parents call with questions and concerns because they're not real clear," she said. "Once I explain things and how Rim Guidance is involved, they're like, 'OK, I've got it.'

"What parents need to remember is that all Rim Guidance is doing is helping us fund the program. The program is sanctioned by the district, but no local school taxes are used to support it."

Duncan emphasizes that all the money Rim Guidance receives is plowed back into the program and a similar program in the Pine-Strawberry schools.

"We also support Big Brothers-Big Sisters, and we plan to start supporting Payson Community Kids," Duncan said. "We also send a therapist to the Time Out Shelter to do two groups a week with children there."

For more information about the student assistance program, call Duncan at 474-3303.

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