Falls school officials respond to latest student welfare report

James Neiss/staff photographerNiagara Falls High School will be among the district schools dissecting a student welfare survey and developing programs based on its findings. The 2019 report is the second in a series that began in 2015.

A new report from the Niagara Falls City School District shows sharp increases in numerous issues among students, predominantly mental health oriented, as well as an uptick in poor dietary behaviors of students, particularly at Niagara Falls High School.

School officials did point out that the report does show decreases in alcohol and tobacco use.

Mark Laurrie, superintendent of the Niagara Falls School District, said in order for the results to be implemented properly, he will be letting officials at each of the schools develop their own programs based on the information.

“The first thing that we’re going to do for the prep schools is that we’re going to separate the results up by school now,” Laurrie said. “Now, I want the separate reports given to each school. I want them to tailor their school improvement plans, their school climate plans, and their programming around the areas that are not seeing the most growth. I’ve given that back to the schools to do and they are going to dissect that.”

Niagara Falls High School will be dissecting its report and developing programs based on that as well. He added there needs to be more discussions about students who are in crisis or considering self-harm. The analysis of the reports done in conjunction with a team consisting of some students, to garner input.

“We have this habit of not listening to the student voice,” Laurrie said. “We have the student voice on paper, now we have to have some dialogue with the students about what they would like to see come into the school that’s not there. Too often, I believe, we just think as adults we know what we should be thinking But, I want the administrators to be listening to the voice of kids about what they want, within reason, of course.”

The new programs will be implemented as early as the next school year. However, if there is an issue that must be addressed immediately, Laurrie said he wants to work on it as soon as possible. One of the bigger changes he’s noticed in students at the preparatory schools is they've developed a sense of fear regarding what their future holds.

In the report, the percentage of students feeling in control of their future fell from 70.9% in 2015 to 62.4% in 2019.

“The number of kids who feel in control of their life and future, and reported feeling good about themselves, is down almost 9 percent,” Laurrie said. “We have to get involved with earlier programming that makes kids feel better about themselves. And that could be more career pathways, more opportunities for doing things to make them feel better about themselves coming into school. What I read is that they don’t feel great about themselves coming into school, they feel safe and wanted, but when they leave there, they don’t feel good about who they are or what their future looks like.”

Within Niagara Falls High School, he also wants to see an increased focus on dealing with student mental health as well. One question asked students if they had been feeling sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row. The number has jumped from 30.1% in 2015 to 43.3% in 2019, a 13.2% increase. Both times, the numbers were much higher than the New York state averages.

On top of that increase there were slight increases in the number of students who planned and were seriously considering suicide. Both increased by 1.5% and 1.9%, respectively, but Laurrie identified this problem as one that begins when a student is in the preparatory schools and grows once they reach high school.

“That sadness and hopelessness, continues in through the high school,” Laurrie said. “And if we don’t recognize that and continue to build hopeful and positive programs, I think we’re not going to get through to any of these other behaviors.”

Although the number of students who are engaging in sexual intercourse is down 5% at Niagara Falls High School, he still finds it shocking that the number of students who are not using condoms has increased by 5.6% since 2015. This begs the question of whether or not contraceptives need to be made easily available to students. There’s also concern that the number of students who have lived with someone who was diagnosed as mentally ill or suicidal has gone up 15.8% since 2015 from 19.8%  to 35.6%.

These numbers are an indicator to Laurrie that students are coming from greater instability outside of the school. Since students are only in schools for 20% of their weeks, there is only so much that the school system can do to aid kids who are in need.

“We’ve got to ignite kids interest in something more than just regular school,” Laurrie said. "We’ve got to tie it back to a future, a career, working with their hands, a clear pathway, getting credits for college in high school. That’s the way that we’re hopefully going to give the kids hope for a better life and a better future. And, quite frankly, we can’t do that alone.”

Another problem area for students at Niagara Falls High School was that unhealthy eating habits have increased tremendously. The number of kids who didn’t eat fresh fruit, at least seven days before the report was administered was up 6.9% since 2015. The number of students who didn’t eat a green salad at least seven days prior to the report, was up by 8.1 percent to 26.5 percent in 2019 as compared to the 18.4 percent in 2015. Finally, the number of students who did not have an fresh vegetables at least seven days before the report skyrocketed from 33.9 percent in 2015 to 44.3 percent in 2019, a 10.4 percent increase. There are already precautions in place to try to bring these numbers down except in Niagara Falls High School, Laurie said.

“We have put fresh fruit and vegetable carts in all of our schools except Niagara Falls High School,” Laurrie said. “And, next year we will put fresh fruit and vegetable carts in the schools. Free fresh fruit and vegetables, so you can make a better choice in the middle of the day; away from the candy bar to an apple. Our family dinner program is our attempt, where we have kids stay for dinner and then once a month, their family comes and eats with them. That’s our attempt to engage and educate the whole family about proper nutrition.”

Following the changes that will be implemented based on this report, a third report will be conducted in 2022, to examine the effectiveness of the changes made this year. There are changes Laurrie was immediately able to identify from the report.

“I think we have to increase the number of social workers, mental health professionals and mental health services that are right inside the school,”Laurrie said. “I think we have to increase the number of programs that we offer in those areas. We’re doing that but we have to have more emphasis on it. It’s obviously not enough. It’s not enough. Kids are coming to us with more mental health issues and more of the people they are living with have mental health issues. We have to continue to up the game there.”

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