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Why take a student out of the Newtown Middle School to visit a physician or walk-in clinic if they can get the same (or better) care right down the hall? And where can a NMS student turn if they are experiencing an anxiety attack, depression, stress, or just don’t feel well?
Many may think the middle school’s capable registered nurses, Barbara Reilly or Andrea Trager, are the only available place for students experiencing a range of physical or other health and behavioral concerns. But for a little over two years, NMS students have had another option — their very own School-Based Health Center (SBHC).
Staffed by SBHC manager Melanie Bonjour, Nicole Woering, MSN NP-C APRN, office manager Nancy Kettner, and Jennifer Sawyer, LCSW, the middle school’s health center has slowly and quietly been gaining traction as a go-to destination for a growing number of students who may need a health care alternative to what may be available, or is not available, at the nurses’ office — all at no cost to families who register.
(The center may choose to bill private insurance providers or the state HUSKY plan in certain situations.)
Since its opening in 2015, the SBHC has not only successfully cared for and addresses a wide range of individual health issues, but its staff has worked closely with NMS leadership to begin engaging in strategic outreach activities, too.
In October 2016, for example, the center hosted the school’s first “Anti-Bullying day” where staff promoted the donning of blue apparel for students and staff as a sign of solidarity against bullying.
“We encouraged everyone to wear blue that day as a sign that they were against bullying,” Ms Woering told The Newtown Bee during a recent visit to the center.
“Everyone who wore blue came to a table we had set up in the cafeteria and got stickers, and we held a raffle for an Edmond Town Hall entertainment gift pack,” Ms Bonjour added. “The Student Council helped with making signs, and this event was a great outreach opportunity as we continue our efforts to be a more integrated part of the school family.”
Slowly But Surely
Ms Sawyer recalled the weeks after the center opened, and how slowly but surely more and more students became aware of the services available, and began availing themselves to that support.
“There was some hesitancy during that honeymoon phase,” she said, “but this anti-bullying event was our first big project with the school, and was a great relationship-building experience.”
This summer, the center is going to pilot a second outreach program in partnership with the Newtown Sandy Hook Community Foundation, which is underwriting a project called CAMP — Confidence And Mindful Posture.
Because of limited funding, center staffers will be providing a select group of ten seventh and ten eighth graders with access to this program. Seventh graders will be attending on Tuesdays beginning June 25 for four weeks, while eighth grade participants will attend on four consecutive Thursdays beginning June 27.
“We’re seeing a higher than average ratio of students experiencing high rates of anxiety and depression, as well as adjustment challenges,” Ms Sawyer said. “And the challenges can be quite different with seventh graders who are transitioning into the middle school where they are facing social pressures along with a significantly higher amount of homework than they had at the intermediate level. And we’re seeing eighth graders who are facing challenges from puberty to navigating relationships, to facing the various temptations in their world.”
The pilot CAMP program will help equip its attendees with greater coping skills they can incorporate into their day to day living that will help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that could begin building up, triggering other health and/or behavioral issues.
“We’ll offer a day of art therapy, a session on mindfulness, a yoga session, and a day learning about tapping that is specifically gauged for young people of this age,” Ms Bonjour said. “And each session will end with an opportunity to discuss what they learned, and to ask any questions they might still have.”
While the future of state and federal funds for SBHCs like the one in Newtown is unclear, the middle school team is still looking forward to its third year of operation come August.
“We’ve been pretty successful as we’ve worked to be a trusted partner in the school setting,” Ms Bonjour said. “I tell people that we can provide a broader range of services that factor in the 12/14 experience.”
The 12/14 Factor
Referring to the Sandy Hook tragedy and the friends and siblings of those who were lost that day, Ms Bonjour noted that mental health issues that may be rooted in posttraumatic shock and survivor’s guilt have sprung from that experience in the middle school population, manifesting in a number of medical and other issues that the center’s staff have been successfully addressing since it opened.
For any child experiencing medical issues, including the possible onset of strep throat or ear infections, the center has also been providing relief to families registered to receive medical support, which is often covered by insurance, or the state’s HUSKY health plan.
“We see a lot of kids, for instance, with asthma or allergy issues this time of year,” Ms Woering said. “We’ve even handled responding to things like possible concussions that occasionally happen in our gym classes.”
“We can provide a cost advantage to parents whose insurance plans have high deductibles, because we can see and treat a number of issues that they might otherwise access through their pediatrician, walk-in clinics, or emergency rooms,” Ms Bonjour added. “And while we don’t see a lot of kids with no insurance, the prospect of being seen here in the center can help a parent avoid taking time off work, and in some cases taking that child out of school.”
Being able to validate that suspected pink eye is simple conjunctivitis can make a huge difference, Ms Woering said.
“Our school nurses tell us that because we are available with the level of medical expertise we can provide, we’re sending a lot more students back to class that they might have been forced to send home,” Ms Bonjour said. “We work really well with our nurses and really treat each student who comes into either office holistically. We’re all here for them.”
Ms Bonjour said that the SBHC enrollment forms are among the many items sent home to parents as the school year begins, and parents should not wait until an issue develops to complete them.
“By enrolling their child in the center before school begins in the fall, we will be able to see and begin treating them whenever the need arises,” Ms Bonjour said. “If parents don’t wait to enroll their children, there won’t be any delays if they present to us with anxiety, depression, or even a common cold.”
Come fall, the center is also planning to continue its monthly “Dine & Discover” activities, which target specific health or related issues each month, and help inform students during their lunch periods.
“We’ve held awareness-building about things like vaping, dental hygiene, teasing, dangers on social media, asthma, summertime safety,” Ms Sawyer said. “We can get these messages out to more than 200 students per event. It’s a really good way to provide another alternate for them to get good health information that will benefit them not only while they’re at Newtown Middle School, but for the rest of their lives.”
For more information, or to inquire about services or enrollment for incoming middle school students this fall, call the NMS SBHC at 203-270-6114.