‘Cry for help’: With rise in violence at local schools, experts emphasize mental health resources

Portsmouth

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Educators’ fears are coming true this school year as students have returned to in-school learning with anxiety, depression and an increase in weapon offenses and violent outbursts.

Weapon offenses in Portsmouth Public Schools have increased 125% this year, from eight in the 2019-2020 school year, to 18 since September.

Norfolk Public Schools reported 669 violent incidents/fights in the 2019-20 school year and already has seen 479 this year (2021-2022).

“When you’re translating into violent behavior, it’s typically a cry for help,” said Jerimyah Dace, a mental health coach and certified crisis intervention instructor at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk.

Dace has discovered many students are feeling robbed of milestones, such as graduations, proms and homecomings. What they want, he told WAVY, is to regain some power over the situation.

“What gives us power? Weapons, or having an advantage, or being able to showcase how powerful we are,” Dace said. “What they really want is a sense of belonging, they want to feel connected, they want to feel like they matter, they want to feel like their voice is heard.”

10 On Your Side reached out to all local public school districts. Most did not provide the numbers of violent incidents, but did talk about the growing number of staff they’ve hired to help.

Brianna Lyons, Chesapeake Public Schools’ student engagement and resource counselor, told WAVY: “Our school social workers have almost doubled, we’ve gotten a number of new positions for child psychologists, we’ve hired some new school counselors.”

Chesapeake schools report they’re catching more kids using alcohol and vaping.

“When I’m working with the students and talking with them I am finding out a lot of times that they are either self-medicating or that it’s kind of like a cry for help,” Lyons said.

School counselors across Hampton Roads are seeing kids in trauma.

“It’s pretty big weight right now just trying to lift that weight and hold it up, because they know that’s what is expected,” Newport News Middle School counselor Patricia Davis said.

Davis uses a circle exercise to help those struggling with anger and anxiety.

“In the circle, you put the things you can control, then there’s the outside circle you put all the things you can’t control,” Davis said.

The lesson is to focus on the things inside that circle, the things you can change, such as your behavior.

Davis encourages deep breathing, music, or simply walking away.

Parents can help, the experts say, by being engaged.

Look for changes in your child’s behavior such as sleeping and eating patterns, and create a safe space for them to talk.

Dace’s advice: “Listen with empathy, listen with patience, listen with understanding — not in an attempt to respond but in an attempt to understand.”

As students press through the pandemic, Dace reminds us that no one has been here before so we can’t expect to have all the answers, but we can find them working together.

“One of the biggest things we can do is extend patience, love and grace,” Dace said.

Chesapeake schools is currently holding focus groups with teachers to listen and address concerns they’re seeing in the classroom.

CHKD will be holding its 25th-annual school health care conference on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022.

It’s a forum for health care agencies, school nurses, and school personnel to virtual meet and share information on current health issues in the schools. Click here for more information or to register.

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