York School Superintendent Lou Goscinski. Credit: File | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — School Superintendent Lou Goscinski said that during a recent meeting with staff, he received a round of applause when he told them he was going to propose the school department hire three mental health counselors to start in fall 2020.

“I don’t want to alarm York, because we’re no different than any other school district,” he said. “But there are students in York — and it crosses socioeconomic lines — who have anxiety, kids who cut, kids who aren’t coming to school. The drug crisis lends itself to the kinds of problems kids face, and social media creates pressure. When the vice principals are interacting with kids, there are significant things going on with some of them.”

As the school year begins, this matter is on Goscinski’s mind, along with myriad other issues such as new bus routes, a continued focus on special education and improving communications with staff, parents and the community.

As he formulates his budget proposal this fall, Goscinski said student mental health is at the top of his list. He talks about an all-school assembly last year at York High School, when retired New Hampshire Supreme Court chief justice John Broderick spoke about his son who suffered from depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Broderick advocates for more open discussion about mental illness, particularly in young people.

“I saw kids come up to him afterward and talk with him about their own issues,” Goscinski said. And when he asked administrators recently what their No. 1 priority is from a budget perspective, “the biggest thing that came out is the need for mental health professionals.” He envisions one for the two elementary schools, and one each at the middle and high school.

He said right now across the country, mental health services are “woefully inadequate, and not all teachers are experts on mental health, nor should they be. It’s my priority to continue to work to provide students with services that support their social and emotional needs.”

He offers some statistics. According to the Maine Children’s Alliance 2019 Kids Count data book, Maine has the highest rate of diagnosed childhood anxiety among the 50 states, and the third highest rate of diagnosed child depression. Child and teen suicide rates have risen from 5.3 per 100,000 deaths in 2008-12 to 8.1 per 100,000 deaths in 2013-17 — above the national average of 5.5.

“So these are the things I think about,” he said.

He said mental health issues are likely a significant cause of absenteeism — an issue the administration and School Committee will investigate this school year. “It’s one of the School Committee’s goals. We need to look at the root cause of this.”

A student is considered chronically absent if he or she misses 18 or more days during the school year. In Maine, 16.5 percent of students fit this description; in York, 9.8 percent do — “below state average but important enough to take a look at.”

Those on the cusp of chronic absenteeism, out 11 to 18 days, comprise 25.5 percent of the student body; and chronic absenteeism among special education students is 16.3 percent. “Why?” To help the school department answer that question, it has hired consultants from Count ME In, a company that works with schools to combat chronic absenteeism.

“They are going to provide strategies to encourage kids to come back to school, throughout the age groups,” he said.

Other topics covered include the following:

— Communication remains a priority. A listening group he started last year has morphed into a communication advisory committee. A key effort of the committee is to roll out a school department Facebook page in October, to “push out information” to parents and the community. The School Committee will also be holding three public workshops this school year on its operation — this after parents raised concerns last spring about how the committee functions. Goscinski also will hold open-ended monthly coffees with parents to discuss their concerns.

— Starting this fall, there will be a special education coordinator in the school buildings. Two are already on the payroll and a third was hired over the summer — paid for through a SPED contingency fund. Goscinski has directed SPED Director Erin Frazier to hold parent and staff training, in collaboration with the Maine Parent Federation, which provides services to parents.

— Bus routes have changed this year to a cluster-stop system, as opposed to a door-to-door system. Goscinski said “the good news” is that all but one bus arrived on time last Thursday and the remaining bus was only a few minutes late. This is in contrast to last fall, when some buses were as much as a half hour late. He said while parents expressed some concerns, he thinks the new system has been largely accepted. He has formed an administrative transportation committee that will act as an appeals board if parents don’t get satisfaction from Ledgemere Transportation.

— For the first time in a number of years, classes started before Labor Day this year, and he said he has received virtually no complaints from parents about the earlier start.

— Looking at policies, there is a new medical marijuana policy. Goscinski said he’s also proposing some minor changes to the bullying policy, and said he intends to report all incidents to the School Committee, whether founded or unfounded, “so they are aware.” He is also proposing a new policy to establish protocols for when teachers bring animals into the school.