Fourteen – that's how many life-changing phone calls Kirkwood High School Principal Mike Havener has made offering condolences to parents whose children had died in drug or alcohol-related incidents.

"That's a number that should be zero," Havener said. There have been 14 of those deaths since 2012.

Havener paused to regain his composure during a meeting last month that brought teachers, counselors, administrators and school board members together to talk about what more the district can do to ensure students' emotional well-being.

"I don't ever want to have to make another one of those calls again," Havener continued. "It's the worst call, the worst feeling. Those 14 deaths touch everyone. This is a community issue, not a Kirkwood School District issue. We can't allow this to keep happening."

Students' social and emotional wellness is especially at the forefront for district administrators, teachers and counselors given the recent school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead.

"We will continue to practice and evaluate our safety procedures and the social/emotional supports we have in place for students," Michele Condon, interim superintendent for the Kirkwood School District, wrote in a letter sent to parents following the tragedy in Florida.

During the March 5 school board meeting, Condon announced that the district will be implementing the Safe to Speak Up app so students can report unsafe situations anonymously. The district will also increase the number of its crisis response drills, and establish a safety and security committee.

To better support students' social and emotional needs, the district has decided to seek outside help for health and wellness supports. As much as Kirkwood already does to address the social and emotional wellness of its students, the district's teachers, counselors and administrators say it's still not enough – and the statistics make that clear.

Last year, roughly a third of the drug overdose reports – 27 out of 88 – in West St. Louis County were for Kirkwood residents.

"The numbers are startling, and the stories behind them are heartbreaking," Condon said. "Despite all the supports and academic success, we're still continuing to see escalating social and emotional needs."

Teachers, staff and principals see those statistics play out in the district's disciplinary records. So far this year, 41 Kirkwood middle/high school students have received disciplinary action due to use or possession of tobacco, drugs and/or alcohol. Last year, that number was 35 students for the entire year.

The number of students showing outward signs of emotional distress is also climbing. Last month, Kirkwood's K-8 principals responded 144 times to students exhibiting crisis behaviors.

Missy Sandbothe, principal at the Kirkwood Early Childhood Center and executive director of special programs for the district, put the staff hours behind each of those incidents in perspective.

"There were several of us who spent two-and-a-half hours today helping one child," she said, noting that involved a decision about whether to call 9-1-1 services. She said there will be several more hours and resources devoted to following up with the child and family.

Another statistic: To date this school year, 11 of the 44 suicide risk assessments conducted by staff have been for young children.

"What's really alarming is that a fourth of those kids are elementary school students. More and more younger children are experiencing suicide ideology," said Shonda Ambers-Phillips, executive director of student services for the district.

Nancy Long, a BJC HealthCare educational support counselor at North Kirkwood Middle School, reported an alarming trend of an increasing number of middle school students engaging in self harm. Because of this, the school has initiated programs that encourage students to tell an adult if they're worried about a friend.

"We don't always know what's really going on with kids because they hide it from us," Long said.

Although many of Kirkwood's numbers mirror national trends about students' alcohol and drug use and social and emotional wellness, that doesn't make it less concerning.

"There is no comfort in knowing the issue is larger than us," said Bryan Painter, the district's assistant superintendent of learning and innovation. "Too many students are suffering, or just hanging on, and that's not OK."

Request for Services

Despite the district's best efforts, the greatest threats to students' well-being continue to be the effects of trauma, heightened levels of anxiety, student use of alcohol and drugs, and diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health problems.

"As much as we do proactively, it still feels like we're always reacting," BJC HealthCare counselor Long said.

She said it's likely the district will have even fewer resources next year to tackle the problem, as Kirkwood might lose four of its 10 educational support counselors because of BJC HealthCare budget cuts.

Principals, teachers and counselors stressed the need for a cohesive, proactive and systematic approach to better address the emotional wellness of its students.

"Everybody is trying to help everybody, but we're kind of grabbing at the problem bit by bit and piecemealing it together right now," Kirkwood High Principal Havener said. "I think having an overall, systematic approach could help."

Several other district leaders agreed.

"Our staff works very hard to support our students, but we need a district-wide plan and overall approach," Condon said.

Kirkwood will now put out a request for proposals to find a company or services, or even a partnership, that can help the district find a systematic way to identify the social, emotional and mental health needs of students and provide services to address those needs.

"The goal for identifying and providing these supports will be to increase our ability to recognize symptoms of stress and mental health challenges and utilize healthy, proactive ways to alleviate and manage these symptoms," Condon said.