COEUR d'ALENE — Vulnerable children attending Lakes Magnet Middle School will soon have access to mental health services on campus.
The Coeur d'Alene Board of Trustees approved a memorandum of understanding last week with Heritage Health, which will see the health care provider bringing a mobile unit to the middle school campus to give students access to counseling and other mental health services.
Mike Baker, director of Heritage Health, told The Press on Wednesday the organization is excited to get the opportunity to provide mental health services to children who are in need.
"We have a lot of kids that are just in trouble," he said. "When you look at the data from suicide attempts to completions to depression to cutting — there are a lot of things happening in our schools and these kids are feeling trapped. We are just trying to find a way to mobilize and make sure these kids have help. Nobody was doing it and that's not good enough. Our kids deserve to have great health care and they need to have the support so they don't make the decisions to hurt and kill themselves."
For more than two years, Baker said Heritage Health has had a similar, but "more complex," agreement with the Lakeland Joint School District. Through that agreement, Heritage Health has been able to bring a mobile medical unit to schools in the district, which provides students with medical and mental health services they would not otherwise receive.
"It's incredible," Baker said of the agreement with Lakeland. "Health care is all about building relationships with your community and patients. To have the ability to be there with the patients and work with the community is just great. We are seeing improvement in the health care of the kids that are there and it's working really well."
Trina Caudle, director of secondary education, said the Coeur d'Alene School District looked closely at Lakeland's agreement with Heritage, as well as similar models throughout the nation, when creating its agreement with Heritage Health. Caudle told The Press the demographics in the district are shifting, and more and more students are hungry or going through a trauma in their life outside school.
"We have a lot of students that have other needs that really need to be met first before they're in the mindset they need to be in to be successful in the classroom," she added. "Any time we can partner with a group to provide some options for students and their parents, we want to do it."
Caudle added Heritage Health is an ideal organization to work with because of its "sliding-scale" payment options, which work with each individual patient on a billing plan tailored to their financial situation.
Amy Clark, director of special education for the Coeur d'Alene School District, said there is a real need for the services, particularly at Lakes Magnet Middle School. A large portion of student population at Lakes gets free or reduced-cost lunches, according to Clark, and many of those same students are unable to access mental health services for financial reasons, or because a parent's work schedule makes it impossible to get their children to and from appointments.
"I've had parents who have lost jobs in attempting to get their children to and from counseling sessions because their child needs them but they can't get that kind of time off work," Clark said. "They were sort of shut out of the community-based mental health services. In this way, they can still maintain their jobs and the student can receive their services as well."
Clark added the district is not the one providing, or paying for, the mental health services. Instead, she said the district is referring parents to services offered by Heritage Health that could benefit their children.
The parents themselves, Clark said, have the final say in whether their children will utilize the services.
"We let parents know their child may benefit from the service and they can meet and follow up with Heritage," Clark said. "It's kind of like taking their community counselor and bringing them closer for access so students don't have to rely on parents and gas money to get them there."
"This is mainly for those where access is an issue," Caudle added. "We want to provide options and then give parents the opportunity to make the decision that's best."
Clark said the district began giving out referral packets and permission forms in February to parents of students whose school nurse determined could potentially benefit from mental health services. This month, the district has seen parents beginning to take advantage of the program by signing up their children.
Having a memorandum of understanding with Heritage Health, rather than a traditional contract, is beneficial to the district because it allows officials to adjust, expand, or walk away completely, Caudle said. The services will initially only be offered at Lakes, but if it's successful, Caudle hopes to expand it to Venture High School.
"We wanted to start small and test the waters," she added. "We always want to be cautious when we are getting into something new for the first time."