High school students experiencing mental health issues and substance use disorders often end up suspended from school as part of the school’s disciplinary process. But a different approach calls for targeted intervention for those students, rather than just sending them home.
South Chatham-based Behavioral Health Innovators, Inc. (BHI) is the recipient of a $101,000 grant from the New York-based Peter and Elizabeth Tower Foundation to fund the new Cape Cod PASS Program. The Tower Foundation is a family foundation that supports and collaborates with non-profit organizations and community partners that share the mission of helping children, adolescents, and young people affected by intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, mental health issues, and substance use disorders.
BHI will pilot the PASS Program (Positive Alternative to School Suspension) in a selection of Barnstable County high schools starting in January. The organization intends to expand the program throughout Cape Cod.
The PASS program was created as a solution to two problems in high schools which BHI has identified over six years of research: the need for an alternative to school suspension, and the need for a means to assess, intervene, and provide services for teens on Cape Cod who suffer from mental health issues and/or substance use disorder. Through the PASS program, the types of behavior which lead to student suspension can instead become a crucial opportunity for intervention. This allows positive change which can in turn lead to life-changing outcomes for students who are struggling and need help, not punishment and the isolation of suspension from school.
Founded in 2016, the nonprofit BHI works to develop solutions to address substance use challenges and related mental health issues in the 24-and-under population. BHI co-founder and CEO Stephanie Briody explained that the PASS program gives school staff the opportunity to offer a student an alternative to suspension, and provides an intense, individualized social/emotional learning experience that will greatly benefit the student.
“We are adapting a successful model from the North Shore of Massachusetts to address the needs of Cape Cod schools, and we are grateful for the support of the Tower Foundation,” Briody said. “The need on the Cape is similar to the need on the North Shore, where our statistics show that in one year, of 200 students who went through the program, 88 percent were flagged for two or more of anxiety, depression, substance use disorder and ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences and childhood trauma. The saddest statistic in my view is that of that 88 percent, only 30 percent were receiving services.”
Briody explained that when a student is suspended from school, the punishment amounts to sending the kid home for 10 days. While at home, away from their classmates and the school environment, they accept the idea that they are “bad.”
“Then when they go back to school, they've internalized that feeling of being bad, people look at them funny, and it just doesn't work,” Briody said. “It doesn't address the root of the problem.”
In these cases, the suspension approach to punishment can become what Briody calls a suspension-to-prison pipeline. Instead of potentially harmful and unproductive punishment like school suspension, the PASS program provides school districts with an option for students that gives them a positive and productive path forward. Rather than the isolation of suspension, students are provided with assessment from a licensed counselor, substance use and mental health education, counseling on healthy coping skills and techniques, and referrals to needed services. The PASS program focuses on the five Rs: respect, relationship, responsibility, repair and reintegration. The program enables students to learn strategies with which they may return to the classroom and find their way to success alongside their classmates.
Briody said the need for an alternative to outdated and harmful punishments such as suspension at Cape Cod schools is clear. Data shows that students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined. BHI’s PASS program provides a restorative discipline alternative while also assessing students' individual needs and offering solutions.
Briody said that in terms of the disproportionate impact of punishments like school suspension on students of color, research has been ongoing nationally. She said BHI's focus is substance use and related mental health issues, but the program has an undergirding of social justice throughout.
“Lots of research about suspension shows how harmful those punishments are for those portions of the population in particular,” Briody said. “The focus is really restorative justice.”
Briody added, “If we can get ahead of the substance use and/or mental health issues that our community’s teens struggle with more and more, we will open up a future of wellness, health, resilience, and productivity for a generation of young people.”
For more information about BHI, visit bhinnov.org.