Darien Schools to hire mental health director to oversee student wellbeing

DARIEN — Darien Public Schools will soon be hiring a director of mental health to address students' mental health needs in the wake of a tragic year.

The Board of Education approved the new position in a vote during Tuesday night’s meeting, with five in favor and two abstaining.

The mental health director is part of a larger strategy to address student mental health systemically, responsible for designing district policies and working with the curriculum team to create a comprehensive mental health support system from pre-K through high school.

The director will also act as a liaison between the school system and outside mental health experts and community groups.

The position was first proposed in August as part of Darien Public Schools' plan to address growing concerns for student wellbeing after the deaths of three Darien High School students last spring.

Assistant Superintendent Shirley Klein described it as “a thread that goes through all our schools” at a discussion of the position during a Sept. 13 board meeting.

Scott McCarthy, program director of special education and student services, said that after such a tragedy, it was important to approach student mental health from a preventative stance rather than just considering the immediate six-month reaction period. 

“We know that that six-month critical window, which we see coming to a close this fall, we know that we need that support right now,” McCarthy said. “On the flip side, we have to be thinking about how do we be strategic in training our general education teachers and training our entire building and staff and thinking about social and emotional learning, not from a reaction once we have a problem, but from actually being proactive and helping children develop the coping skills that they need.”

Superintendent Alan Addley said the existing mental health resources in schools were sufficient when asked if current employees were stretched too thin to properly assist students.

“If there was an acute need, I would not be hiding that acute need to the public, to our staff but most particularly to our children and certainly not to the board,” he said.

Addley did say it was likely more resources would be requested in the 2024 budget, including recommendations provided by the new director.

“Our psychologists are always overworked,” assistant superintendent Shirley Klein later added. “It just goes with the territory.”

Student representative John Roskopf, a senior at Darien High School, confirmed he hadn’t heard of any issues scheduling meetings with mental health counselors at the high school from his classmates. 

The best way to help students, he said, is to make sure the new director prioritizes improving the school climate around mental health services rather than simply adding more staff.

“If they don’t feel comfortable with one administrative person, then I’m not sure why they would, as of right now, feel any more comfortable with someone else unless that role were to be so heavily and outwardly focused on student climate,” Roskopf said. “It would have to be on that list as one of the central core ideas if it were to make an effect that I think would be meaningful.”

Addley and McCarthy confirmed that there are still many unanswered questions when it comes to understanding what students’ biggest needs are for mental health, nor are there any concrete ways to evaluate success.

McCarthy added that the schools must collect more information from students through focus groups or surveys to understand what problems need to be addressed, though no official method has been confirmed.