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Blue Valley students push importance of Social and Emotional Learning

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Posted at 3:23 PM, Nov 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-01 19:29:29-04

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — The Blue Valley School Board election is heavy on COVID-19 policies, equity and diversity, and academics.

Some students and parent groups have been working to amplify another major focus, Social and Emotional Learning curriculum, or SEL.

"We believe that mental health is just as important as physical health. So, educating yourself about your own mind and your emotions is just as important to maintain your health as a whole," Anna Hamilton, a senior at Blue Valley North High School, said.

Hamilton is on the teen council of Zero Reasons Why, a local suicide awareness and prevention program. She got even more involved after a classmate died by suicide.

"Our goal is to have no more suicides in our area at all, and if we don't start talking about it now, we're just, I don't know, we're allowing it to happen," Hamilton said.

SEL is interwoven into daily classes in the Blue Valley School District.

For Hamilton and her peers, they get the curriculum during advisory hours or health and wellness classes. They learn about goal setting, clear communication, empathy, how to recognize symptoms of depression and more.

The group wants to see children getting familiar with these discussions early-on. Part of that depends on having a school board that supports SEL.

The Blue Valley School Board is set to have three new members.

Kaety Bowers is challenging Andrew Van Der Laan for Member 4 in the northeast.

Gina Knapp and Christine White were facing off for Member 5 in the northwest, but White has since withdrawn.

Jim McMullen is against Lindsay Weiss for Member 6 in the south.

Knapp, Van Der Laan and Weiss said they are supportive of SEL.

McMullen said he's critical of SEL because it is "grounded in an internal focus on one's emotional state, which is inherently shifting and unreliable. In turns children inward. It views children as fragile and vulnerable, rather than capable and resilient."

Bowers did not respond to KSHB 41 News' requests for comment.

Regardless of who is elected, Hamilton and the group will work with the district to expand mental health awareness, including for younger students.

"Our school took out the old mental health videos they used to show us and we're working on replacing them. So they've definitely listened to us," Hamilton said.

Tim DeWeese, Johnson County mental health director, agreed that school districts have made tremendous strides to support students' mental health as a part of SEL.

"Over the last several years in the work we've done with the schools, we've actually seen in Johnson County the number of deaths by suicide among young people, high school students, actually go down. And we expect that probably will be the same case for this year as well," DeWeese said.

Here are the unofficial numbers from his department:

  • In 2018, 11 people between 10 and 19 years old died by suicide.
  • In 2019, 10 people died.
  • In 2020, 9 people died.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment also tracks that data. In Johnson County residents aged 15 to 24, the number of suicides spiked in 2016 — there were 19 suicides that year — but the number has started to come down.

KDHE suicide data
KDHE suicide data

KDHE's data reflects all Johnson County residents who die for any particular reason.

"All of those tools we've given young people — they're more apt to ask for help, talk about their feelings, and as a result we see more people asking for help, more people calling our crisis line, but fewer people dying by suicide and that's a positive thing," DeWeese said.

Hamilton said students need to feel heard and seen so they can be supported in making healthy decisions for themselves.

"Normalize talking about it and seeking help, and know it's not bad," Hamilton said. "You can do it, you're working for yourself. So, anything you need to do to make yourself better is okay."