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Some Grand Forks School Board candidates want to expand mental health services

Grand Forks Herald - 6/9/2024

Jun. 9—GRAND FORKS — Grand Forks School Board candidates largely favor the district's focus on improving student mental health, with some calling for expanding those services and a greater emphasis on staff wellbeing.

Mental health is a significant concern of the current School Board, with a comprehensive school district mental health system among the three major goals articulated by the district's 2020-2025 strategic plan.

In their responses to a Herald questionnaire, all but one candidate for School Board indicated favoritism for the school district's current focus on providing mental health resources to students, parents and staff.

That included incumbents Amber Flynn, Jeff Manley, and Eric Lunn and challengers Cameron Murphy and Jay Kleven.

The exception was Roland Riemers, who issued a broad attack against school-based mental health care and said he would "look at it on a case-by-case basis," though the School Board has no direct authority over which students receive mental health care.

"Our schools are not there to provide health services or just provide free babysitting services for students unable or unwilling to learn," he wrote.

The six candidates are vying for four seats on the School Board on the Tuesday, June 11 ballot.

Voting begins at 7 a.m. at four locations in Grand Forks.

Cameron Murphy, who has been largely critical of the current School Board throughout the election cycle, gave a highly favorable assessment of the district's focus on mental health services.

"In many ways the district has worked wonders to try and address the mental health of students and staff," Murphy wrote, comparing the district's current counselor numbers to historic data from the U.S. Department of Education'sOffice of Civil Rights.

The district currently employs 25 school counselors, 17 social workers, nine in-person and remote psychologists, a part-time therapist and the district mental health coordinator.

Lunn, a long-time pediatrician, indicated he believed the district was addressing student and staff mental health needs but also pointed to increased rates of mental illness since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Expanding our current mental health program and getting new support systems with the guidance of mental health experts will be crucial in getting better control of this crisis," he wrote.

Board president Amber Flynn similarly echoed the need for a "deeper dive" into student mental health needs, naming care for students and staff as the most significant issue facing the district.

In candidate forums hosted by the Grand Forks Education Association and Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce, Flynn has called for adding more substance abuse counselors to the district

since the district eliminated its sole addiction counselor position.

Flynn's response also singled out staff mental health needs as an issue needing more focus.

"Teacher and staff burnout is real and we need to understand better what issues are affecting staff burnout so that we can help retain high-quality staff," Flynn wrote.

Manley's response also highlighted the need to maintain a healthy environment for staff members, highlighting teacher salary gains and increased parental leave benefits among the improvements approved by the School Board during last year's contract negotiations.

"We should have resources available to staff much like we have available to students," Manley said. "Staff should be able to utilize all of the same resources that we have set up to care for our students."

Murphy and Kleven's responses both acknowledged the role of parental involvement in student mental health, with Kleven describing parents as the "primary form of care and support" and Murphy suggesting parents should be involved more in addressing students' mental health needs.

Grand Forks Public Schools currently offers remote virtual parent education courses on mental health topics.

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