On Tuesday April 9, 2014 Chairman John Tester (D - MO) and Vice Chairman John Barrasso (R - WY) convened a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for the hearing on “Indian Education Series: Indian Students in Public Schools – Cultivating the Next Generation”. The topic of discussion was a proposed a 4% increase of funding for public schools on Indian reservations, which would be approximately $64 million to Cultivate the Next Generation.
Alberto Siqueiros, Ed. D. spoke as Superintendent of the Baboquivari Unified School District in Tohono O’odham Nation of Sells, Arizona about the changes he made within his school district. Mr. Siqueiros restructured his entire school district- starting with a turnaround of teachers- choosing to non-renew all probationary teachers but rather provide them with an opportunity to re-apply. The thought process behind this was to ensure that the schools had “effective and efficient educational support services” and not just people filling positions. This was obtained through hiring new teachers and hiring back only those who met these qualifications.
One of the most crucial resources for students suffering from PTSD or other mental health conditions is a strong and effective resource system. By holding teachers to a higher standard and hiring only proactive and engaged educators, the Baboquivari Unified School District was able to accomplish their goals. Mr. Siqueiros said “highly affective teachers are role models for students as well as other teachers”. Over the past five years Mr. Siqueiros has seen a 40% increase in graduation rates along with an increase in the amount of students enrolling in college after high school graduation. This is important to issues related to mental health because with more students staying in school, they are able to receive the recourses they need from faculty members to help combat depression and other mental health conditions.
Senator AL Franken (D – MN) brought up the issue of mental health awareness on Indian reservations stressing the need for schools districts access to communication about mental health programs, and the appropriate funding to provide services to students. He emphasized the need for training everyone from teachers, to principals, to custodians, to recognize the warning signs of suicide and depression. He referenced how in his home state they needed to layoff mental health providers in schools in Minnesota when impact aid was cut and how he created the “Mental Health in Schools Act of 2013” to address these issues.
Executive Director of the National Indian Impacted Schools Association Brent Gish spoke on behalf of 635 public school districts that his not-for-profit oversees. One of the programs that Mr. Gish referenced was the training of all staff within two school districts in Minnesota. He talked about how we “need healthy learners for healthy schools” and discussed his training program were all faculty members are taught how to recognize the characteristics and warning signs for suicide. His training plan also included a policy on postvention programs within the school districts. This postvention training that faculty members underwent proved affective after faculty members recognized the warning signs of six teenagers who had created a suicide pack following one of their peers completed suicide attempts. Fortunately they were given the appropriate care and assistance needed because these faculty members knew the signs. Training all members within these Indian school districts is an effective way to combat high suicide rates and to ensure the safety and well-being of the students and should be used in all school districts.
Chairman John Tester (D - MO) commented on the issue saying “the greatest challenge we face as a country is mental health…this issue needs to be mediated at the state, local, and national level”
Mandy Smoker Broaddus, Director of Indian Education in the Montana Office of Public Instruction spoke about the “moral obligation of anyone who chooses to work in education”, that moral obligation being to prepare students for the future. She referenced the suicide clusters and increasing domestic and sexual violence Indian students are experiencing at home and how it is our role to provide students with a welcoming environment to grow up in. Places the increased funding would go to include dropout prevention efforts along with early childhood development efforts. She spoke about their mental health “wrap round” programs which provides support from trained staff who are also tribal members. This helps encourage students and their families to seek help if they need because it removes the barrier of an outsider- someone who they may not trust or feel comfortable opening up to about their health conditions.
This hearing provided an excellent overview of what programs the school districts within the Indian communities have been working on with the current funding and showed a strong movement to increase these funds in order to continue the advancement of Indian youth. One issue that was addressed by the Chairman John Tester was that more communication needs to be down between the tribes because they all have great ideas and programs but they could strengthen them even more through coalition. The movement to strengthen and improve Indian public schools is important to the cause of AFSP because a stronger school system lowers the dropout rate which hopefully in turn will lower suicide rates through providing the schools with the appropriate mental health resources to care for students.