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Students need mental health supports, resources to deal with pandemic stress and trauma, not band aid solutions

The Internet and the news are awash with stories of how young people are dealing with the stress and anxiety of the pandemic. Educators are reporting more discipline problems, students acting out and even engaging in self harm.

But, think about it. Adults had to dig deep into their coping skills to get through the last two years. Just imagine how our poor babies feel. The difficulties of remote learning and then the fear of returning to in-person school. The COVID-induced loss and trauma and the violence plaguing many of our communities.

It is too much to expect young people to deal with these crises without extensive, school and community-based mental health services that are non-existent today.

On the front lines

As frontline workers in schools, our PSRPs are called on often to deal with these problems. Whether it’s breaking up a fight or talking a student off an imaginary ledge, our members are asked to deal with situations they have not been trained for. This can put them in harm’s way.

I recently heard a story from one of our members who was called on to break up a fight. Two boys were going at it and the classroom teacher was at her wit’s end, crying. The member wanted to intervene to help out because that’s what we PSRPs do. But she was afraid.

When we spoke, I explained that it is not her job to intervene in such situations. She hasn’t been trained for it. Not only could she get hurt, but she could be written up or, worse, reported to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) if she lays a hand on a child.

CPS alone received $2.8 billion in federal pandemic relief funds, but few of those dollars have made it to our classrooms. Our schools, especially those on the South and West Sides of the city, have been cut to the bone. We didn’t have enough adults in the building before the pandemic and conditions are at a breaking point now.

Along with dispersing fights and enforcing discipline, PSRPs are being asked to cover classrooms, supervise the lunchroom and the care room, organize and run contact tracing, manage vaccine events and a myriad of other duties that are not in their job descriptions.

Leave and grieve

My motto for these situations is to — with a smile — “leave and grieve.” Advise your administration that the task you’re being asked to perform is not one of your contractual duties and, if the boss insists, file a grievance.

I realize standing up for yourself like this can be difficult. Our PSRPs are more than just school workers. They are integral members of the school community. They live in the neighborhood, sometimes even on the same block. They know the school’s families and children — they’ve helped raise some of them — and seeing young people in crisis is heartbreaking. You want to help.

But our schools need more than the bandaid solutions the mayor and her CPS team continue to offer. We need more nurses, social workers, counselors and psychologists. We need smaller class sizes, math and reading specialists, librarians and more substitutes.

We do not need our PSRPs putting their bodies on the line because CPS refuses to invest in more staff. We want our students to be safe and our schools to succeed, but that is simply asking too much.

Christel Williams-Hayes is CTU Recording Secretary and a PSRP for life.