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School health centers a good investment

Published March 14. 2014 4:00AM

Principal Tim Smith strives to make every new student feel immediately welcome at Pawcatuck Middle School. Until recently, however, when a new student arrived from out of state without the physical examination or immunizations Connecticut requires, Smith often was forced to first send them away.

"I always felt bad that our first response to a new family seemed almost like barring the door," he said.

That is not the case anymore. Pawcatuck Middle School is the 18th public school in southeastern Connecticut to host within its walls a school-based health center operated by New London-based Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut. Now, those immunizations, required school physicals, athletic physicals and many other medical and mental health services can be performed right at the school.

School communities in Groton, New London, Waterford and Norwich already enjoyed such benefits. We applaud Stonington school officials, along with state Rep. Diana Urban and state Sen. Andrew Maynard, for sticking with the long and sometimes arduous process that ultimately led to securing the $100,000 federal grant needed to renovate school space and create the cheerful, cozy health center. That money, plus about $124,000 in annual state funding needed to operate the center, is money especially well spent to serve some of the most pressing of children's needs.

In the six weeks since the Pawcatuck center officially opened, about a third of the school's 350 students have registered to receive school-based health services should they need them. A flu immunization clinic brought whole families into the school and a support group for adolescent girls is about to kick off.

While the health center's medical services indeed are a benefit for Pawcatuck Middle School families, the center's greatest value, in our estimation, is in providing individual and family counseling in a familiar environment and convenient location, a place where children who are emotionally fragile or suffering mentally can feel safe and nurtured.

This holistic approach allows teachers and parents quick, face-to-face access to Melinda Walsh, the center's licensed clinical social worker. It means no more days wasted playing phone tag or exchanging emails while a child may be suffering.

Walsh also is now able to more closely monitor children - observing whether they regularly eat lunch by themselves or enjoy regular social interaction in the hallways or classrooms, for example. She also is available to meet with children and families before, during or after school hours, making it less likely parents will be forced to take time from work to attend an appointment.

Should children need services beyond what the center provides, Walsh can refer them directly to the Child and Family Agency's psychiatrist. Previously, families in crisis were handed a list of possible service providers and left to navigate the confounding maze of Connecticut's mental health system on their own. Odds were not good they would find a provider who accepted new clients, could offer a timely appointment and was located nearby.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook School tragedy, Connecticut officials are continuing to search for ways to improve both the quantity and quality of mental health services, especially for children and adolescents. Establishing more school-based health centers such as the one at Pawcatuck Middle, certainly should be a piece of this puzzle.

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