IW schools considering mental health curriculum

Published 3:15 pm Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Smithfield High School’s class of 2020 salutatorian urged the Isle of Wight School Board to make mental health care and education a priority for future generations of students.

Mathis Kremer spoke at the board’s July 9 meeting. He had sought to share his thoughts on the topic during the school’s June 13 virtual graduation ceremony, but his remarks were left out of the video as originally broadcast.

Kremer and his family say his parting speech to his class and community was deliberately censored. Division officials said the omission of his remarks and failing to announce him as salutatorian were unintentional. They have apologized.

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To address mental health in a school environment, Kremer said three things are required — a culture of listening and caring for one another, establishing support systems for struggling students, and teaching students the science behind mental health. He supported his position with statistics on youth anxiety, depression, suicide, and the connections between education and mental health.

He advocated for the implementation of several initiatives, including an in-school restorative justice program, which focuses on healing rather than punishment and facilitates a dialogue between the offender and the person offended; creating an in-school calming center, where students can meditate or otherwise cope with stress and negative emotions in a healthy way; and adding excused mental health days.

“Having a few absences where students can stay at home and cope with their feelings and learn, with parental permission, will increase communication between the students and the parents about how they feel because a lot of time, that’s a huge obstacle in students’ lives,” said Kremer, who became emotional at several times during his presentation. “And punishing students that don’t even want to get out of bed in the morning is wrong because it demotivates them even more.”

He also suggested that the division teach “The Science of Well Being,” a popular Yale University course, and he urged the board to implement mindfulness practices through mental and physical exercises. Kremer’s speech received a round of applause from everyone in the meeting room.

“I felt your passion, and obviously you have done so much research and you’ve certainly given us something to aim for,” board chairwoman Jackie Carr said. “And we thank you for being here tonight and sharing.”

Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton “appreciated Mathis’ presentation and plans to have members of his administrative team investigate the Yale University program that Mathis shared, as well as other programs, for possible implementation as we move forward,” according to a statement provided to the Smithfield Times by division spokeswoman Lynn Briggs.

In other matters, Christopher Coleman, the division’s executive director of support services and operations, told the board that renovation work on the Smithfield High media center and the installation of new bleachers at Windsor High, are nearing completion. Those projects, which combined, cost about $95,600, should be finished by Aug. 14. And new cafeteria furniture is in place at Carrollton and Windsor elementary schools at a cost of about $104,820.

Coleman was previously director of support services. The board named him to his present position at the July 9 meeting. The director of support services position will not be filled. 

The board also announced on July 14 a new position for Tawana Ford, the division’s truancy officer. She is now a coordinator of instruction. In her new role, Ford will continue to coordinate the division’s adult education and alternative education, along with managing issues related to student attendance and truancy.

“I am proud of the direction the division is going and realize it is crucial to align leadership to maintain this momentum,” Thornton said in the announcement. “I congratulate Mr. Coleman and Mrs. Ford and look forward to their continued contributions to Isle of Wight County Schools.”

Two upcoming meetings are planned where the board is expected to receive staff and public input before deciding on a reopening plan for the 2020-2021 school year. The first meeting is set for 9 a.m. July 23, when the board will review staff reports on how transportation, food service and other essential academic and logistical issues will be handled as schools statewide and nationwide grapple with if and how to reopen in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And at a meeting set for 9 a.m. July 30, the board is expected to finalize the division’s fall instruction plan. Both meetings will be held in the cafeteria at Westside Elementary School. Those attending in person must wear face coverings. The meetings also will be broadcast on the division’s Facebook and YouTube pages.