Asian American students in Alhambra were four times less likely than Latinos to be referred to school-based mental health services in the 2010-11 school year, according to a School Mental Health article co-authored by Dr. Laurel Bear, director of Student Services at Alhambra Unified School District Student. While Bear says students of all ethnicities struggle, this disparity in referrals may be due to Asian American students' higher rate of academic achievement and lower juvenile justice involvement compared to their Latino peers, the article states. However, once students are referred to school-based mental health care in Alhambra, there is no ethnic or racial difference in the acceptance or receipt of treatment.
That school-based mental health care is Gateway To Success, a counseling program that collaborates with local law enforcement and community agencies to provide mental health resources for AUSD's 18,000 students and their parents. Bear, who heads the program, was with the district for more than 20 years as a teacher, dean of students, and principal before becoming director of Student Services and Gateway to Success in 2002.
Alhambra Source’s Reporter Corps sat down with Bear in February to talk about the ethnic disparities in mental health care referrals, the district’s parent outreach and education programs, and the issues students face today.
What is Gateway to Success?
Gateway has been part of the district for the last eight years and is offered at every school in the district. We have about 109 clinical interns in the district supervised by licensed clinicians, or practitioners seeking their clinical hours who are able to serve uninsured or underinsured students. This means all students are served regardless of immigration, insurance, or academic status.
How is Gateway to Success funded? Was the program affected by recent budget cuts?
We have been funded by competitive grants, like Safe Schools/Healthy Students, for the last five years. The district also sees the strong, reliable outcomes, such as improved attendance rates and behavior, and uses the general fund to fund the program.
Budget adjustments result in change, but I also think that change is good, because it allows us to be innovative and creative. Sometimes we’re more creative when we have less but do more.
The UCLA School Mental Health article you co-wrote states that there is a significant disparity in school-based mental health care referrals between Asian American and Latino students in Alhambra, but as soon as the students are referred, there is no ethnic difference in acceptance or receipt of treatment. Can you talk a bit more about this?
All students are struggling regardless of ethnicity. Our data show that out of 197 suicide assessments in the last school year, we transported about 123 students to hospitals because they were risks to themselves and others. But it was almost split down the middle between Latino and Asian and Pacific Islander students.
We studied disproportionality of academic performance, access to academic opportunity, suspensions and expulsions, and qualification for special education. We need to have a healthy discussion about that so we don’t add to the stigma or stereotypes.
A new education budget package called the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) will gradually allocate funding to California's schools over eight years and include extra funding for English learners, foster youth, and low-income students. How will LCFF impact Student Services?
The new Local Control Funding Formula model will allow us to look at what the priorities are, such as school climate, safety, and parent and student engagement.
What Gateway to Success services have been the most effective in helping students?
The Parent University program has been held every Thursday for the last four years at the police department. It has been very effective, since children of parents who are engaged are far more successful. The program keeps us grounded because it lets us understand the difficulties that families are going through.
We graduate about 400 parents a year and it’s offered in Cantonese, Spanish, and English. The program discusses hot topics like bullying, mental health, risk factors, and drug use. I think that’s one of our proudest areas and we see it growing.
For immigrant parents who do not speak English fluently, what are the challenges in engaging them?
We provide translation. Being culturally competent also requires whoever is providing that language assistance to really understand and not impose their own stigmas, making sure they’re not communicating their perspective on mental health.
Has the recent sexual abuse case involving a former Alhambra High School administrator and a student in a different district made a significant impact on trust between AUSD officials and parents and students?
Parents, contrary to media reports, have communicated to us and media that they were completely confident and satisfied with the swift way the matter was handled. As soon as the information was presented to the district it was communicated to all parents and staff members through an automatic call.
Gateway tends to many controversial and difficult topics. Our website has information on maintaining healthy relationships and identifying reliable and trusted adults. If we don’t teach kids how to communicate effectively, then they’re more vulnerable for risk factors such as what was presented in the media.
Gateway to Success reported that the top causes of student referrals in the 2011-12 school year included family-related difficulties, academic difficulties, and difficulties with mood and affect. Has this changed in the past two years? Are there any other issues that have become prevalent?
This has been a tough year. The economy continues to add to the complexity of our families’ lives. Over the holidays, we collected about 120 baskets that were disseminated to families in need.
I think we’re going to see the same referrals. Our kids are becoming far more involved; many are far more trauma-exposed. Things are more complicated now than it was three years ago. These kids may not have resiliency, communication skills, or reliable adults. There are all these variables that they may not be able to navigate or manage.
In your 33 years with AUSD, what have been some of the biggest improvements in mental health education within our district?
I think our biggest improvement has been helping families, regardless of culture or background, talk about good mental health and help folks de-stigmatize it. Teachers, parents, and students are all making referrals—of those hospitalizations mentioned earlier, probably half of them come from concerned peers.
Kids are talking to adults, and we know that if adults at school are not caring, reliable, and safe, kids won’t talk to them. What parents must recognize is that the most influential relationships are the adult ones.
This story is part of a Reporter Corps series on the Local Control Funding Formula and its impact on Alhambra students, teachers, parents, and community. Learn more.