Setting Standard in Student Assistance Program

"What Quakertown has done is phenomenal," drug counseling expert says of QCSD's 5 SAP counselors
Posted on 10/18/2019
QCSD's five SAP counselors pose for a photo. From left, they are Betsy Leatherman, Linda Bunda, Amy Bocklet, Trisha Watkins and Sarah Szybowski.By Gary Weckselblatt

With the growing need for mental health resources in school districts, Quakertown is taking a leading role in providing help to its students through an increased number of SAP counselors.

Two years ago, QCSD had one Student Assistance Program (SAP) counselor. It added two more a year ago and two more for this 2019-20 school year to bring the number to five - two at the high school, two at the elementary school level and one for the middle schools.

“What Quakertown has done is phenomenal,” said Melissa Groden, director of prevention, training and education for The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania. QCSD contracts with The Council for the SAP counselors, who are trained by Mrs. Groden.

“The numbers show the need and Quakertown is meeting those needs better than ever before,” she said. “They might be the only district in Bucks County that has this many SAP counselors five days a week.

“For us, this is fantastic because it shows how much support the district has for the Student Assistance Program, and for helping students and families in the district.”

According to the PA Network for Student Assistance Services, SAP is designed to assist in identifying issues including alcohol, tobacco, other drugs, and mental health issues which pose a barrier to a student’s success. SAP’s primary goal is to help students overcome these barriers so that they may achieve, advance, and remain in school.

SAP’s core is a professionally trained team, including school staff and liaisons from community drug and alcohol and mental health agencies. SAP team members are trained to identify issues, determine whether or not the presenting issue lies within the responsibility of the school, and to make recommendations to assist the student and the parent. When the issue lies beyond the scope of the school, the SAP team will assist the parent and student so they may access services within the community.

Mrs. Groden said SAP team members do not diagnose, treat or refer to treatment; but they may refer a student to a liaison who may screen or assess for further community-based services and support.

Around the country, there has been an increased need for mental health assistance for students. The point was driven home by Dr. Michael J. Bradley, a Bucks County-based adolescent psychologist and award-winning author, who was brought in by Superintendent Dr. Bill Harner to speak with approximately 150 teachers, administrators, staff and parents at Quakertown Community High School in June.

His message: Whether they wanted it or not, today’s teachers, no matter what class they teach, are in the mental health business.

“Every year, mental health issues that we see in our schools are growing,” Dr. Harner said. “Things are very different than they have been, and the disruptive behavior from mental health issues are starting in earlier years.”

A 2019-20 superintendent goal specifically deals with the “Culture of Safety, Security and Wellness.” As part of that, this is another in a series of stories to increase student, parent and staff awareness of available student supports and services.

Quakertown is following a distressing national pattern. In 2013-14, for example, 123 district students were referred to a SAP counselor. In 2018-19 that number grew to 485.

“The administration saw this need and presented it to the School Board, which provided the support,” said Janet Pelone, the district’s Director of Pupil Services. “We believe it’s going to make an enormous difference for students and families.”

The SAP counselors are:

Amy Bocklet, who has worked in QCSD for more than a decade and is its original SAP counselor. She works with Neidig, Richland and Trumbauersville elementary school teams. Newly hired Trisha Watkins works with Pfaff and Quakertown elementary school teams.

Sarah Szybowski is the SAP counselor for the Sixth Grade Center and Strayer Middle School. The high school SAP counselors are Betsy Leatherman and Linda Bunda.

According to Mrs. Groden, there are four phases to the student assistance process:

Referral: Anyone can refer a student to SAP when they are concerned about someone’s behavior -- any school staff, a student’s friend, a family member or community member. The students themselves can even go directly to the SAP team to ask for help. The SAP team contacts the parent for permission to proceed with the SAP process.

Team Planning: The SAP team gathers objective information about the student’s performance in school from school personnel who have contact with the student and from the parent. The team meets with the parent to discuss the data and also meets with the student. Together, a plan is developed.

Intervention and Recommendations: The plan is put into action. The team assists in linking the student to in-school and/or community-based services and activities. The team might recommend a drug and alcohol or mental health assessment.

Support and Follow-Up: The SAP team continues to work with and support the student and family. Follow-up includes monitoring, mentoring, and motivating for academic success.

The Council provides SAP support to 10 of 13 Bucks County school districts. Besides Quakertown, districts include Bristol Borough and Bristol Township, Centennial, Central Bucks, Council Rock, Morrisville, Neshaminy, Palisades and Pennridge. It also provides services to Archbishop Wood, Bucks County Technical High School, Center For Student Learning Charter School, George School and School Lane Charter School.

“Of all of our clients, this is the only contract we have for SAP counselors that is this large,” Mrs. Groden said.

Gary Weckselblatt, QCSD Director of Communications, writes about the people and the programs that impact the Quakertown Community School District. He can be reached at 215-529-2028 or gweckselblatt@qcsd.org.
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