Welcome to our podcast Conversations About Student Mental Health. I’m Chris Leonard, clinical social worker and educator, working with adolescents for over 25 years. The purpose of this podcast is to talk with school administrators, educators, clinicians, and parents to open a dialogue that will help the growing number of students struggling with mental illness.
In our last episode, we highlighted the school’s role in addressing student mental health issues. In this episode, we’ll be discussing the proactive steps schools can take to prevent tragedies, such as shootings and suicide. This can be a sensitive issue — one that we may prefer not to think about. But if you talk with school administrators, you’ll find that many will list preventing school tragedies among their top concerns.
With the sense of urgency we feel about preventing school tragedies, the temptation has been to harden schools by adding armed guards or even arming teachers. This thinking has gained increasing traction in the last couple of years, but a recent eight-point document signed onto by over 2,300 experts recommends that making schools softer is more likely to create a safe and secure school environment.
Number one on the eight-point list is establishing a positive school environment. What are the best ways to go about this? I’ll be speaking today with Robert Ferullo, principal of Weehawken High School in Weehawken, New Jersey. Robert has been in education for 24 years. He spent his first 13 years as a teacher of students with disabilities at Memorial High School in West New York and Wayne Valley High School before moving into administration.
Robert was the supervisor of special education in Weehawken for seven years before becoming vice principal and then principal of Weehawken High School. He is passionate about creating a positive school environment and has taken some important steps to achieve this in his school. Robert, welcome to the podcast.
Robert Ferullo: Thanks for having me.
Chris Leonard: It’s great having you. Let’s jump right in. What would you say are the most important proactive steps that school administrators can take to establish a positive school environment?
Robert Ferullo: Well, definitely, having great communication with your students is important. Establishing respect and forming relationships also is important. A lot of times when we meet with new teachers, one of the things we discuss is how they’re going to build relationships, because once you build those relationships, you create a level of trust. Once there’s trust, you can move forward when situations turn uncomfortable or there’s genuine concern.
Chris Leonard: That’s great. You know, that is also the way we think at Sage Day Schools. It all begins with relationships, and we want kids to feel a sense of belonging and significance as part of our community. Those things create the trust, don’t they?
Robert Ferullo: Yes, absolutely. Weehawken is a small town of about 15,000 people. The school where I am principal is a community of about 600. As the times have changed, one thing I’ve noticed as an administrator is what were once little problems that were cast aside or dismissed are now issues that demand attention. The emotional well-being of your students goes hand-in-hand with the educational component. If you don’t help one, the other struggles. This is something we find is very important to address. It’s our role as a school to educate kids as best we can, in every way we can.
Chris Leonard: That’s a refreshing perspective, because sometimes people assume that we have too much else to handle — reading, writing, and arithmetic, test score gaps, college admissions — to deal with emotional issues. But if you don’t have emotional stability in the student, the student is not available for learning, right?
Robert Ferullo: That’s the truth. Worse, suppose you ignore the emotional piece of the puzzle. Suppose Tommy’s got to apply to five different schools, and you don’t realize that the pressure of applying to those schools or doing well on a test or passing AP has worn Tommy down so much that he is miserable. If you don’t address that, it can turn bad quickly.
Chris Leonard: Definitely. Schools really need three levels of support. The way we think about it, level one supports are those things you provide to everyone to establish a positive climate and culture. Level two supports are things that you target to groups, like training for staff and making sure you have the right people in place.
This also include educational programs for students and parents on mental health awareness. Then level three supports would be for dealing with what Tommy is going through — providing direct service and mental health support for kids.
Robert Ferullo: I couldn’t agree more.
Chris Leonard: So, can you speak to how you have addressed any of those levels? We already talked about level one, but if you could address how you’ve brought level two and three supports into your school, that would be awesome.
Robert Ferullo: Well, we make sure that our guidance counselors are trained as intervention specialists, so that they recognize things that might be dismissed by someone who isn’t trained. We also talk to our teachers to about being aware of things like drops in grades or change in appearance. Again, that comes with building relationships. If you don’t have a relationship with the kid, you’re not going to notice that change in demeanor or personality.
That happy-go-lucky kid who all of a sudden is moody and dark, is missing homework assignments, is late all the time — that’s your front line. If teachers aren’t noticing that, it’s a problem. We also encourage our students to come forward, and that’s another challenge: To build relationships with the students so that they trust the teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators enough to say to them, “Hey listen, I see something and I’m concerned. I know you, and I know you’re going to do something about it.”
In Weehawken, because we’re a small community, our teachers are encouraged to not only be teachers but also to be club advisors and coaches, to be involved, and to show up to events, more so than in a bigger school. That connection is important. Teachers often to me saying, “Hey, this kid came to me in confidence about an issue that he’s concerned with.” How many of those would slip through the cracks and not get attention if not for the relationship between the teacher and the student, and the trust that has been created?
We have that, I think more so than a lot of other schools, because we’ve tried to create a culture of trust. Many kids will come to me directly or even to the vice principal. That’s something that didn’t happen when I was in school. If something was going on, you didn’t go to the vice principal, who was a disciplinarian and someone to avoid.
Now we’ve created a level of trust and a culture that lets kids know they can count on the teachers, administrators, and coaches to do the right thing every time. Then we bring in the third component, like your service, when it gets to the point where my counselors and I have taken it as far as we can. That’s when you need the expert to come in — someone who is going to provide what the kids need, who has that ability to tell them what they need to hear and pull out the information needed to help them.
That’s where I think that we’ve covered all the bases at Weehawken. I feel very good at the end of the day knowing that if there’s a kid who’s in crisis, we have the right people in the right places to help.
Chris Leonard: That’s great. I love how you’ve framed it in terms of a culture of trust and created some divisions of responsibility — some separation of who is responsible for what. It sounds like you’ve really worked to increase the capacity of your staff, teachers, and guidance counselors to make sure they’re able to recognize some of the classic signs that a kid is in trouble.
Robert Ferullo: Absolutely. If everybody’s not buying in, it’s going to become a weakness. That’s why to me, it’s just as important that a custodian will notice something and come to me or a student will come to me, and for me to go that extra mile as well. If I’m not buying in, how is everybody else going to buy in? It’s something that I preach to my staff and it seems to have affected everybody, because it feels like the culture of trust is developing the right way and has helped a lot of kids.
We’ve had kids that have graduated, especially at the Thrive Program, who would never, ever have graduated in years past.
Chris Leonard: So that level three support, that highest level of support, sometimes can really make the difference?
Robert Ferullo: It’s been huge for us. From a financial aspect, if you send a kid to an out-of-district placement, you’re talking about a huge financial commitment. Instead, if you put the right services in the school, you’re saving that money and you’re keeping the kid at home in the school where they’re comfortable. And you’re continuing to build trust. Sending a student out of district almost sends the wrong message: “Listen, we can’t help you. You got to go somewhere else.”
I get some kids who do need that level of support , and there are kids for whom we don’t have enough services in place. That’s unfortunate, but at least those kids know we’ve tried every single thing along the way, so when the time comes to say, “This isn’t the right place for you,” there’s trust. They believe us. They know we’ve done everything we possibly can to do right by that kid here before we refer them to an expert facility. At the same time, I’m the type of guy — and I know my staff is, too — to go check on kids even when they’re not in our district, to see how everything’s going and find out if there’s anything they need from us, to continue to cultivate a level of trust and care.
If you’re disingenuous about it, people are going to see right through it and that’s not what we’re about. If I have to put my signature on something that says a kid can’t stay here, I want to make sure the parents know it was a difficult decision for me and that I’m still there for them when they’re having a rough go or if things aren’t going right. I want them to be able to turn to me and say, “Hey listen, I’m uncomfortable with something, what can you do?” That’s what we’re here for.
Chris Leonard: That openness is so important. Let’s circle back to the concerns about safety. How does bringing in those level three supports — those experts in mental health who can go beyond the capacity of school staff — make a difference in creating an overall feeling of safety and a sense that we’re catching things early? How does that help you?
Robert Ferullo: It’s definitely helped immensely. Again, the kids with that kind of problem have the biggest issues with trust. Those are kids that would normally turn away and turn off to everyone and everything. The fact that we have level three capacity and that trust has been established has really helped. Even though the kids still have some difficult issues to deal with, they’re so much better and families are on board once they see the level of concern and care that we brought in for them.
They recognize that the district has gone to great lengths to try an assist the family. It goes beyond words to say what that does in Weehawken or any other community where people know the school district is a place of trust. It’s a place of safety. It’s a valuable resource for the family because, listen, if we’re up against the wall with all of the assets that we have, imagine what mom and dad are going through when it’s just them battling to help their child.
Chris Leonard: One of the things I’m hearing is that it really helps to create engagement with kids who otherwise would not be engaged.
Robert Ferullo: Absolutely, 100%.
Chris Leonard: It also helps families who otherwise wouldn’t be engaged, who are hunkered down and worried about what could happen but are afraid to say anything to anyone. By bringing in these services, you open up this space for people to feel safe to come forward and speak up before something terrible happens.
Robert Ferullo: I agree 100%. It’s been life-changing for a lot of kids in this school district.
Chris Leonard: That’s fantastic. I’m just wondering, is there anything I haven’t asked you about or something that we haven’t addressed that you think would be important for people to know?
Robert Ferullo: From an administrative aspect, I think a lot of times people don’t want to acknowledge that there are issues. They want to say, “Oh, everything’s great in our school. Nothing goes wrong, and this is why you should move to this community and pay this exorbitant amount of money for a house and taxes.” They want to protect their image, and I think all that does is sabotage you and show that you’re not transparent.
Any school district that says they don’t have emotional and mental health issues is lying to their community. There’s no other way of putting it. “Other schools may have those problems, but we don’t.” At the same time, if they’re not willing to invest in solutions, what message are they sending to their community and their kids? “We’re going to help the smart kids or the athletes or other kids, but if you have a mental health or emotional issue or you’re just difficult, well, that’s mom and dad’s problem. That’s somebody else’s problem.”
Nothing could be more untrue. Any school district that thinks they don’t have these problems is fooling themselves and needs to look a little deeper, because these problems exist everywhere. If they don’t put the resources in place to address the issues, the things you mentioned earlier — school shootings and suicides — are going to become very real for those places. And it’s going to be unfortunate because they will have to think, “If only we had done something, this tragedy could have been averted.”
I don’t ever want to look back and reflect on something like that, because at the end of the day I have to live with it and so do they. If that is something that’s in their minds, they really should consider improving their program.
Chris Leonard: That is a tremendous summation of how important this is. Robert, I want to thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today. I think you provided us with a crystal clear picture of how you translated your vision of promoting school health and safety into extremely effective best practices.
Robert Ferullo: Thank you. We try to do our best.
Chris Leonard: That’s our podcast for today. Thank you so much for listening. We hope you found today’s topic valuable and will join us for future conversations about student mental health.