NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – As the Board of Education (BOE) President Adam Smith expressed the board’s condolences to the victims of yet another school shooting tragedy in Texas, James Vopal, teacher at the Salt Brook School, brought up mental health issues. In New Jersey, the biggest threat to students’ well-being is not gun violence, but mental health issues, Vopal said at the Thursday, May 24 BOE meeting. He asked the district to hire more counselors.

Vopal explained that he is celebrating his 20th year in New Providence. “I have been very fortunate to work in the district with great parents, students, administration and colleagues,” he said. When I heard that all schools are getting school resource officers, “I had mixed feelings,” he said. He said that he appreciates that the district and the borough are working together on school security issues, but would like to bring up another aspect of student safety – the mental wellness of students.

Vopal shared some statistics and facts that he had obtained from the New Jersey Department of Education reports on school violence, vandalism and substance abuse during the years of 2012-2016 in New Providence. There have been 51 incidents of bullying, five incidents of substance abuse, 14 incidents of violence, three of vandalism and no incidents of weapons. “Sadly the greatest threat to our students’ safety is bullying, substance abuse and statewide suicide,” he said.

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He suggested in investing in more resources and outreach. The district should hire more counselors, especially in the elementary schools. The district has approximately 1100 K-6 students in the two elementary schools, “and just two guidance counselors for all of them,” he said. The counselors “are spread too thin” for too many tasks, unable to provide the students with one on one guidance that they may need. “Please, hire more counselors,” he pleaded.

He touted the importance for children to be able to have a trusting relationship with an adult at school. They are here with us six and half hours a day, about 1300 hours each academic year and they need access to a trained guidance counselor who can address their emotional wellness, he said. He suggested that the district create a mental health wellness curriculum starting at the elementary school level. He also said that one of the teachers’ development days should be dedicated to students mental health issues so that the teachers could identify any student that may need help, but is not asking for it.

Vopel noted that having a policeman at school does not guarantee that school shootings will be prevented or that lives will be saved in the event of such a tragedy. “This is the unfortunate, horrible truth,” he said. When it comes to mass shootings with four or more deaths there has never been a school shooting in New Jersey. The records show that there have only been three school shootings in 250 years in New Jersey since 1764, resulting in one death, he said.

Vopel pointed out the today’s adolescents are experiencing a lack of coping skills because of the constant pressures of social media, overscheduled activities and academic demand, drugs, alcohol, bullying and overall pressures of adolescence. In New Jersey, in just three years, between the years 2013-2015 a total of 84 school-aged children committed suicide. “It is a horrific number for New Jersey,” he said. “This is the real threat to our students’ safety and well-being. This is the crisis we are facing. This is what needs to be addressed,” he stated.

Even if one additional counselor is hired between the two elementary schools, it will make a difference, he advised. “Start small, end big,” he concluded siting this year’s character education slogan.

The new school resource officer is set to start in the middle school/high school building in June while the elementary school resource officers will start in September.