NEWARK, NJ - The demand for more mental health programs for Newark Public Schools students has been coming up again and again at school board meetings, and on Tuesday it seemed to reach a tipping point.
In September, the superintendent alluded to a mental health incident that occurred in Science Park High School at the start of the school year. School board members have been careful whenever they speak of the incident due to student privacy policies.
“Our mental health crisis is very real,” Superintendent Roger Leon said at a Sept. 18 meeting. “It reared its head in one of our schools at the start of this school year and I trust and hope that everyone believes that whenever something ugly does something like that, that we will be very aggressive and intentional in how we respond.”
The incident sparked students at Science Park High School to start their own mental health club, Leon said. But parents say the school district should be doing more -- and soon, before another incident occurs.
One parent, Diane Gayoso, has been asking for months at school board meetings for more programs to address students’ emotional needs. Bradley Gonmiah, a 17-year-old in the Newark Students Union, attended a meeting in September and called for the expansion of therapeutic programming that's currently at Science Park and East Side high schools.
Gonmiah also asked for the ratio of guidance counselors, social workers and therapists to students within the district. A district spokeswoman said she needed more time to provide information about mental health programs when TAPinto Newark inquired about it today.
On Tuesday, the student representative to the school board, Andre Ferreira, spoke out about the issue at a meeting. He demanded that the concerns of students and parents not be brushed aside and called on guidance counselors to do a better job of addressing students' immediate mental health needs.
“Students are stressed out and there are problems going on within our community that we're not discussing,” said Ferreira, who is a student at Science Park High School. “...I'm not going to hide it or cover it with something. I'm going to speak blatantly out there: it is a problem in our schools. I was there when there was an incident -- as administration described it -- at my school. I saw the effect it had on the students.”
Ferreira spoke to national policies that he said have started to become stressors for students, such as the possibility of deportation for immigrant families. Ferriera’s comments seemed to be in response to a county executive candidate who called on the school board to denounce the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) earlier in the meeting.
In response to Ferriera, Newark Board of Education Chair Josephine Garcia said the district is hosting a workshop on Nov. 27 that will inform Newark families about their immigration rights. She also recommended that he email school board members about his concerns and to even start a group in his school to help teachers identify students who have mental health issues.
“I would like you to please inform yourself more with this district's website,” Garcia said. “We have a calendar -- a monthly calendar -- with all of our events regarding if it's immigration, public health institutional knowledge and I would like to see your presence at these functions. They're after school, Saturday mornings, evening hours so it's not going to interfere with your work schedule at school.”
School board members Reginald Bledsoe and Kim Gaddy expressed support for Ferreira; Yambeli Gomez even invited Ferriera to a community engagement committee meeting. However, school board member Leah Owens took issue with the way Garcia addressed the student representative.
“I just can't help myself at this moment. I just found it kind of inappropriate to respond with what he needs to do,” said Owens to applause from the audience. “I think he's doing a lot just by the fact that he was able to speak to the issues in the manner that he just did. And I think it just made a perfect point of what he was saying anyway, about how we're just saying a lot about the issues, but we're not really doing a lot about the issues that are most important.”
But Garcia shot back: “It's just to make him aware of what's going on in the district so he can attend and so he can share with his peers.”
Leon, who was selected as chief of schools by the school board in May, has a long list -- albeit, not one that has been written down yet -- of goals for the district. He wants to tackle absenteeism, college enrollment, test scores and reorganize the district.
He’s spoken about mental health in previous meetings, although no specific programming was mentioned. On Tuesday, he said that Ferriera was "speaking the truth," but admitted that it was difficult for adults to hear.
“Here we have a situation that I want you to understand this: that you're speaking the truth to this, and what that does is, it puts salt on our wounds because we're older and we're wrong and we're flawed.”
The superintendent later added: “I don't want to deny that we're moving, because we are. But I also want to be real: we're nowhere near where we're supposed to be, and the reality check that you provided was really really nice, especially for me this evening.”