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Laurel Bear reflects on building a nationally-recognized mental health program for Alhambra students

Laurel Bear talks to CBS LA about suicide prevention training. Photo courtesy of Alhambra Unified School District.


Alhambra , CA United States

The investigation last month of a potential threat at Mark Keppel High School recalled the earlier attack in Parkland, Fla., and reminded Alhambra school officials of the need to be vigilant in responding to threats against their community.

For Laurel Bear, assistant superintendent of the Alhambra Unified School Distict, the Florida shooting underscored the need for schools to ensure safety by addressing student mental health. In discussing the suspected Parkland shooter at a recent YMCA luncheon, Bear spoke about the risk factors he exhibited.

“He was a loner, he talked about guns and knives, he was expelled and disciplined, and I believe we know those kids,” she said, speaking generally about some children who struggle behaviorally in many American communities.

Bear told the Alhambra Source in an interview that the Alhambra school district deals with up to several potential threats like these a year and that after determining how imminent the threat is, they then provide the student with the mental health support he or she needs, whether that means placing them on a psychiatric hold or getting them outpatient treatment.

After 38 years with the Alhambra Unified School District, Bear is retiring at the end of this school year, leaving the district with a comprehensive framework for addressing student mental health and school safety. John Scanlan, the principal of Mark Keppel High School, will succeed her in July.

The program is called Gateway to Success and provides mental health support to 17,000 students at 19 schools. It has been studied across the country as a means of ensuring school safety by addressing mental health, Bear said.

She pioneered the program in 2005, applying for several federal Department of Education grants to set up a pilot for it. In 2008, the school district won multi-million dollar Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant to fund the project.

From research and observation, Bear found that mental health was at the root of a student exhibiting good behavior and performing well academically. She made that the goal of Gateway to Success.

“How do we develop this systematic process of care? How do we provide school-based services so kids don’t have to access mental health at the clinics or in the community or drive anywhere, that these service providers come to them at school?” she said of the program’s purpose.

Gateway to Success provides a variety of programming, ranging from classroom visits, group therapy, one-on-one appointments and training programs for parents and staff in partnership with up to 20 school-based agencies and 11 universities, providing more than 100 clinical interns for students.

The program also includes active shooter drills at the district’s schools and safety training in partnership with local police departments and other agencies.

Gateway to Success is responsible for much of the training that school employees receive if they’re designated as a “mandated reporter,” meaning that they’re legally required to report abuse and neglect that Alhambra Unified children are experiencing. In addition to that, school district policy dictates that any employee must report a threat that they hear of or perceive to the school community immediately.

In the case of the Mark Keppel incident, a substitute teacher was reportedly fired for not reporting a threat he overheard quickly enough, 24 hours after the fact. Bear said that there were stipulated timelines for alerting administrators to such information and that people should feel encouraged to go to an administrator to report a threat.

“We say, ‘take every threat seriously, and if you hear something or see something, report it, let us rule otherwise,’ ” she said.

In line with state education regulations, Bear said that suspension or expulsion is usually the last resort in dealing with students who may be threats to themselves or others. “We’re taking them out of the most structured environment, when they need the most structured environment, with the most equipped adults,” Bear explained.

The school district has recently come under fire for applying what many thought of as a lenient punishment to the students who vandalized San Gabriel High School last year. Rather than facing criminal consequences, they were prevented from walking during graduation.

“I’m terribly sad that it has created such a big impact and ripple in the community, both with adults and with our children,” Bear said. “And I’m hoping we can learn from it and move forward and recover.”

Bear explained that because the incident didn’t involve physical harm that the response to it is discretionary, based on California’s educational code. When asked if she thought the ultimate punishment was too lenient, Bear stood by the district’s response.

“All of us remember that day we crossed the stage for high school graduation, the unfortunate part is those kids won’t experience that milestone and that’s a consequence they have to live with,” she said. “I don’t believe that one bit, and I think we have to look at circumstances.”

In her 38 years with the Alhambra Unified School District, Bear has served as assistant principal at Alhambra High School, Principal at Century High School. At the district level, she was the coordinator of special education and director of student services before becoming assistant superintendent.

For her retirement, Bear plans on spending more time with her family, including her new granddaughter and pursue other opportunities with various local and national student and mental health agencies. She has also started a non-profit that will bring comfort dogs to support crime victims, people in hospitals and children’s courts and elsewhere.

Bear is grateful for the opportunity that the Alhambra Unified School District gave her to develop Gateway to Success and the student and employee welfare division as a whole. “I have had a wonderful professional journey to create and build and kind of think outside the box,” she said.

Updated at 1:13 p.m. to clarify when the Mark Keppel substitute teacher reported a potential threat.

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