When was the last time you walked the halls of a high school? Can you remember what you observed? Were there groups of students standing around talking to one another, waiting until the last minute to get to class before the bell rang? Could you tell just by watching who was in which group: the popular kids, the jocks, the smart kids, the band kids, the druggie/stoners, emo/goth kids, the loners, the kids who love anime, the FFA kids?
High schools contain so many different students who like different things, yet they’re all part of one school. I have had the privilege of walking the halls of a high school, Monday-Friday, for the past 26 years: twenty of those years as a teacher and the last six as an assistant principal. I have seen education morph over these years, but the one thing that stayed constant were the students walking through those doors year after year.
This year, at Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs, Utah, has been a year unlike any other I have experienced in education. It started off as you would imagine, a regular school year beginning. Students exuding excitement to be back with friends, football games, homecoming, and part of 'Thunder Nation'. What many didn’t notice, however, were the increasing number of students silently struggling. Students were spending more time in the counseling office and less time in class. Students who seemed to be unable to cope with everyday life. They weren’t keeping up with school work and often expressed crippling depression and anxiety as the reasons. I knew that as one of the school leaders, I needed to do something to help these students.
Recently, I heard about student wellness centers in schools, and I wanted to learn more. Could this be something that we could implement at our school? Could this be the answer--to teach students actual strategies they could use to deal with their anxiety and stress? I started my research. My motivations changed, however, on the last Friday of October. I got a call that no school administrator ever wants to receive…one of our students suddenly passed. I was devastated. My coworkers were devastated. The student body was devastated. And then five days later, my principal tearfully gathered the staff together and informed us that one of our students had committed suicide. I was stunned. I remember thinking, “This isn’t real. This cannot be happening.” I felt like our school was under attack and our students were in the crosshairs. I had to do something. We, the administrators, had to do something. We needed to teach our students how to live and how to reach out when they felt they couldn’t.
My mind kept returning to the idea of a student wellness center. I envisioned a place where students could go to self-regulate and decompress when they felt overwhelmed. I consulted with other school administrators who currently have wellness centers in their schools. Those administrators explained that about 80% of students who spend just 20 minutes of time in the wellness center report feeling more relaxed and ready to return to class. Just 20 minutes of decompression and self-regulation could be the difference between life and death. I remember thinking, “This is it. This is what we need to do.” I also remember feeling almost immediately overwhelmed with all of the logistical obstacles. How could I make this happen at Westlake? How would we pay for it? How would we find the right people, trained to help high school age kids learn coping strategies? Would my team be supportive? What would teachers think of it? Would this help prevent another suicide? I decided that doing something was better than doing nothing; and even if the wellness center helped just one kid not to feel alone, turn to self-harm or even suicide, then it would be worth all the effort and money.
In public education, money is always an issue. While funding for emotional wellness in schools has increased somewhat over the years, it is still not a priority. I wanted to make it a priority. Three weeks after our second student passed away, I met Paul Feyereisen, Chief Impact Officer and Founder of The IM Foundation. Somehow, he heard what our school had been through the past month and wanted to help. Paul runs the philanthropic foundation, IM, and one of his goals is to help build student wellness centers into schools across the country. He actually walked into Westlake High School and offered to help however he could. I couldn’t believe it. At that moment, I knew we were going to get the wellness center and save our students.
Four months later, the IM Wellness Center at Westlake High School was set to open. It was exciting to know that all our efforts were about to pay off for those students who needed our help. Unfortunately, the weekend before we opened, the call came from our principal…another one of our students... the third one in this school year... There are no words to describe the confusion and utter anguish I felt. How are we going to tell our staff and students? How are we going to get through this again? How does a school help the students that are left behind--help them begin to process what has happened? That week at school, following the suicide of the third student, was surreal. The grief we all felt was painful, but it also was a force that bonded us together. I was so grateful we had the wellness center open. Over 400 kids came through its door that week. Students found comfort and support in a safe space designed to help them process the heartache of losing 3 classmates in one year.
I have to believe that while my high school lost three students this year, we have helped and saved more students than we know. The wellness center isn’t the perfect cure to teen suicide, but I know that it will have a huge impact on our students. I look forward to seeing my students empowered and taking control of the way they cope with their daily struggles.
I love my job as an assistant principal. I love my school. More than anything, I love the students. While this school year has been the hardest year of my 26 years in education, I have felt the most inspired as a school leader. I know that the impact we can have in the lives of our students reaches far beyond academics.
Stay strong! #WestlakeStrong
Jennifer Bitton is a wife of 29 years and the mother of two amazing young adults. As a graduate of BYU, she started her educational career teaching Physical Education and Health and later moved on to administration. As an administrator, Jennifer has had the pleasure of working with thousands of students at two different secondary schools. As an assistant principal Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs, UT she is the lead over Social-Emotional Wellness as well as being a part of Alpine School District’s Social-Emotional Wellness Leadership Team. Being the first to bring a Wellness Center into Alpine School District, Jennifer is proactively working to address the real issues that exist for this generation. She is passionate about helping students be prepared for what lies ahead in life.
IM is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the rising generation to understand and live a balanced life. The focus of growth is within the five key areas: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and financial health. IM is working to bring wellness centers into schools across the country.