In Wake of CHS Student Death, School District & Towns Address Mental Health Concerns

by Carolyn Parisi and Lela Moore
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The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education’s student representative used his update at Monday’s BOE meeting to call for the hiring of an additional social worker in the wake of a Columbia High School student’s death by suicide last month.

Morros thanked Falynn Balassone, the guidance director at CHS, and CHS principal Frank Sanchez for what he termed a “quick and compassionate response” to student grief over the death. In particular, Morros said that bringing in social workers from outside the school as well as “optimizing our guidance counselors” and the use of therapy dogs and rabbits was very helpful for CHS students. But, he said, the district needs another full-time social worker.

Cole Longworth was a CHS sophomore. “Cole was a high-achieving student and a friend to many who have been heavily impacted by his passing,” Morros said.

“Right now we have social work interns and one social worker to help students deal with their mental health,” Morros said, noting that students had “fully booked” multi-week programs with these workers, and there was still more demand.

Morros and Vanessa Previlon, the other BOE student rep, have worked with Balassone to expand counseling sessions and to strategize ways to better publicize the mental health resources available to CHS students, including via social media outreach.

“This is clearly an issue that should be dealt with not only swiftly but also completely,” Morros said. “We need to continue to build on the mental health resources available to our students, in not only Columbia but around the district as a whole.”

Morros said that he, Balassone, and Previlon planned this month to collaborate with the guidance departments at the district’s middle and elementary schools to discuss the mental-health resources available in those schools.

Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor opened his remarks by requesting a moment of silence in Longworth’s memory. “We continue to send our prayers to the family, friend, and loved ones who are undoubtedly still coping with this unspeakable tragedy,” Taylor said.

The student’s death was also mentioned by Mayor Dean Dafis at the most recent Maplewood Township Committee meeting. Health Officer Candice Davenport said at that meeting that the township’s Board of Health was taking a “multi-pronged approach” to mental health awareness, increasing partnerships with local groups and organizations — including the school district — with the goal of de-stigmatizing mental illness and increasing the availability of resources and guidance. Dafis also urged partnering with local as well as county and state groups.

Davenport also noted that the township has a mental health page contains resources for mental health support.

Suicide is the 7th leading cause of death in men, and the risk is even greater for those in the LGBTQIA+ community, Davenport said. That community in particular is vulnerable to mental health issues because of stigmatizing and bullying.

In March’s BOE meeting, Board member Elissa Malespina asked if there could be additional funds in budget for socio-emotional supports for students. The district should “…think about getting some more resources and doing what we can to help these children who are greatly suffering right now.”

Taylor noted initiatives the district had taken, including Equal Opportunity Schools, hiring additional music teachers and Challenge Day. “… my concern is we still haven’t implemented everything we planned on because some are happening in spring,” he said. “I would like to see those come to fruition before we add on more.”

Director of Curriculum Ann Bodnar said there was additional funding in the budget for socio-emotional learning, but wasn’t specific about programs. “We’ll be looking at some more things…we want to see what’s out there and what we can do for our students.”

“There are definitely other resources out there [but] we need to vet and review them” first, said Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction Matthew Friedman.


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