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More counseling coming for Ferguson-Florissant students

Images from the "Hearts for Ferguson" project
Great Circle

After Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson last summer, and unrest delayed the opening of classes in the Ferguson-Florissant schools, the district wanted to make sure students had help handling their emotions, so their learning wasn't affected.

It turned to Great Circle, a social service organization with roots going back to the 19th century. Great Circle and the school district already had begun working together in 2013 to provide counseling for students. So at the start of this past school year, it helped welcome students backto their normal academic routine when classes finally resumed 10 days after Brown’s death.

Now, Great Circle says it will be embedding counselors in all of the district’s schools for the coming school year as well, to help deal with any continuing emotional problems that can drag down students’ attempts to learn.

Angela Batcher, the organization’s statewide director of student support services, said the expansion of the program will address lingering effects of the turmoil of last year, both right after Brown’s death in August and after the grand jury announced no indictment of former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

Some students may have already had mental health or behavioral issues before Brown’s death, Batcher said, and the unrest may have made a difficult situation worse.

“This was just an additional issue for them to deal with on top of that,” she said. “I think with many traumatic things, you don’t always see the effects right in the short term. Sometimes, it takes a while to sink in and see people who have been affected more deeply.”

The violence that erupted in Ferguson in August, 2014 occurred just as several of the area’s school districts were about to start classes. As school was delayed, many programs were held to help teachers and other educational staff members cope with what their students may have been dealing with. 

Batcher said that Ferguson-Florissant’s existing relationship with Great Circle made it a natural step for the organization to get more heavily involved.

“At the beginning of school, we wanted to have therapists there in case kids needed to talk to somebody, if they needed extra support,” she said. “So, we stepped in and organized our existing staff and provided that service.

“Then, after the grand jury verdict occurred, we provided therapists in the school for two days to provide extra support again to students and staff and the families in the district.”

The caseload, Bratcher added, wasn’t necessarily severe, but the help was welcome.

“We didn’t see a lot of extraordinary problems,” she said. “What we saw was a lot of kids just wanting a voice, to talk about what their feelings were, if their feelings were positive or negative, and then helping them kind of find direction for that voice.

“The district did a wonderful job in tailoring that in each of the high schools, to what the kids need. I know they brought in community leaders for the kids to talk to, and they answered questions and just got their opinions processed in a really positive way.”

The expanded program for the coming school year will be paid for with money from the Children’s Services Fund of St. Louis County.

One Great Circle program that Bratcher said had special meaning for Ferguson-Florissant students was known as “Hearts for Ferguson." She said the group’s art therapist, Susie McGaughey, came up with the campaign to have hearts sent to the district’s children, expressing love and support.

Images from the "Hearts for Ferguson" project
Credit Great Circle
Images from the "Hearts for Ferguson" project

The idea went international, Bratcher said, and some of the local students sent their love back in what she called a “brush pals” program, similar to pen pals with an artistic flair.

“It has really been good for the kids doing that,” Bratcher said. “It was a really positive experience for the kids, getting those. When you know someone cares about you, it kind of helps your well-being as well.”

That attitude should spread with the expansion of the therapist program in the coming school year, she said. Therapists who are embedded in a school’s culture get to know students in a way that drop-ins can’t.

“They’re going to be a part of that school community,” Bratcher said, “So, they’re going to be highly visible within that school. We’re going to tailor whatever services we provide in terms of therapy to that school and that population and what they need.”

The approach is so worthwhile, she said, that when unrest erupted in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, Great Circle’s program was used as a model for schools there.

Bratcher said that after schools are done for the summer, Great Circle will still be providing mentoring services in several locations to continue its holistic approach. Ideally, when classes resume, students will have less baggage to hinder their path to learning.

“If we address mental health services for kids and their families,” she said, “the kids are going to be academically stronger. They’re going have fewer behavioral incidents in school, and the families will be able to function better in the community.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.