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New mental health program gets nod at Seneca Valley

JACKSON TWP — A new program at Seneca Valley School District will enlist empathetic students in the quest to provide help with mental health issues in secondary schools.

Jeff Roberts, director of student services, said the district has formed an affiliation with the Hope Squad program.

The school board approved the plan Tuesday night.

The program sees students in grades seven through 12 nominate classmates who they consider easy to talk to, who are good listeners, who do not engage in bullying and who they feel comfortable turning to in a crisis.

From those nominations, 15 “squad members” will be selected from each grade level in grades nine through 12, and slightly fewer in grades seven and eight.

The students, led by a team of adult advisers, volunteers from all departments on the secondary campus, would undergo training not to be counselors, but to report serious issues their peers share to guidance counselors or other adults at their schools.

“Hope Squad is built on the principle that students are most comfortable confiding in their peers in times of need,” Roberts said.

He said a recent student survey at the secondary campus proved that is true.

Adult advisers would see a one-day training, and Hope Squad members would engage in training on self-care and relationship boundaries while they are squad members, Roberts said.

Training materials will be provided by Hope Squad, which is based in Utah.

Roberts said squad members will not necessarily be the most popular students or those who volunteer for multiple activities at school, but students who are approachable and demonstrate empathy and caring for all classmates.

Hope Squad members must have parental consent to participate. An assembly for parents of members will be held before the program is launches in the spring.

Roberts said one squad will receive training for grades nine through 12 and another for grades seven and eight.

He said “Hope Week” will be held in each secondary school in the spring, and he envisions Hope Squad members creating the activities for the special week.

Several school board members had questions or comments for Roberts on the program.

Leslie Bredl asked Roberts about squad members’ time commitment in participating.

Roberts replied that in addition to training, squad members would organize one activity per month, which would be held during lunch period.

He predicts squad members will invest one to two hours each month in Hope Squad, plus the extra time they spend talking to their classmates.

“Initially, there will be a lot of conversations, because there is going to be curiosity,” Roberts said.

“If we help one, if we help 10, we’re helping somebody,” Bredl said.

Kathy Whittle, board president, asked how students in crisis would reach out to their school’s squad members.

Roberts replied that while he has requested space for Hope Squad activities in the high school, he plans to allow squad members to make that decision.

He said school counselors, during their monthly address to students, will advise students that squad members are out there who they can talk to if they are facing a mental health issue.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the results and your reports back to us,” Whittle said.

Fred Peterson said one criticism of health care in the United States is that it is reactive to physical and mental health issues.

Hope Squad, he said, is a proactive plan.

“I think this is a wonderful thing,” Peterson said. “Once again, Seneca Valley is out in front.”

Peterson said Seneca Valley might be the first school district in Pennsylvania to use Hope Squad for student mental health issues and suicide prevention.

The district has other mental health programs in place, including Care Solace, which was rolled out about one year ago.

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