Featured Fellow: Rhode Island’s Cumberland School Department’s Director of Special Services Rachel Santa Brings Compassionate School Mental Health to Her District

By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

Rachel Santa has had a varied career in mental health and education in Colorado and Rhode Island, from working as a music therapist and then assistant director of a residential facility to creating an alternative high school program; working with students with emotional, behavioral, and learning difficulties  in North Kingstown, RI; and now serving as the Director of Special Services in Rhode Island’s Cumberland School Department. Her varied past experiences allow her to come into the role of administrator with a different perspective—one that honors and furthers the voices of students and their families. Throughout her years of providing mental health and special education services, she has been able to better meet these needs by listening to what students and their families need with compassion. 

Listening to Family and Student Voice Leads to Better Services and Supports

Throughout Rachel’s impressive career, she has been able to work closely with students and families to deliver the services they need, in part, because she takes the time to listen to their stories and deliver what works for that individual or group of people. One thing that she has heard repeatedly is that having mental health services co-located in the school can solve a number of problems with getting kids the therapy and medication they need to address their mental health challenges.

Overcoming Barriers to Collaboration

It has not always been easy to provide these mental health services in the school building. In fact, as part of Rachel’s work to increase wrap-around services at Cumberland School District, she’s identified a number of barriers that make this collaboration between schools and mental health agencies difficult. In a recent meeting of the Helping Educators Recognize and Address Trauma (HEART) Committee—a collaboration between the New England MHTTC, SAMHSA Region 1 Office, and the Health Services and Resources Administration Region 1 Office, Rachel shared the barriers she has seen most often, including:

  • The lack of healthcare providers that take the insurance her families are using
  • Families’ desire for privacy, as well as HIPPA and FERPA laws, making it difficult for agencies and schools to share information
  • Language that mental health agencies use (disorders) versus schools (disabilities) confusing families
  • Funding structures that prevent clinicians from engaging in important school-based meetings with families
  • The lack of understanding that schools and clinicians have of each others’ systems and structures and families’ lack of understanding of either
  • Limited time during the school day for these services. When students spend time in therapy, that’s time being taken away from learning. It’s also unfair to ask a student working on a difficult issue in therapy to go back to math class and learn.

Rachel has heard frustrated parents lament that they have to go to one place for medication, another for therapy, and a third for education. When you have separate people at all of these places who are not talking to each other, there can be confusion. People in different settings may have different pieces of the puzzle or parts of the story and could offer solutions to each other. Rachel reminds us, “The reality is that we all want to do what is best for each kid, but we’re coming at it from three different angles in isolation from each other and we’re relying on the information source coming from the family… where there might be a misinterpretation from the clinical world or the educational world.”

Furthering the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative’s Compassionate School Mental Health Model

As a Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC) Fellow and advisor, as well as a HEART Committee member, Rachel has been working to expand understanding and adoption of the Compassionate School Mental Health Model (CSMH) in her district, state, and the New England region. The CSMH advocates for having wrap-around services and working in conjunction with mental health agencies and community organizations to make it as easy as possible for students to receive the mental health services they deserve. In October, Rachel brought C-TLC staff to her district to provide districtwide training on the CSMH, the neurobiology of trauma, and equity in education.

Rachel knew that these topics were ones staff at her school needed some professional development around, thanks to the results of the School Compassionate Culture Analytical Tool for Educators (S-CCATE), Center for Educational Improvement’s compassionate school culture assessment, which the entire district took this fall. Rachel believes that S-CCATE “helps us to create a common ground. Having the training helps us have a common understanding of what can create a compassionate school culture.” We feel confident that Rachel will continue to be an advocate for what families and parents truly need: compassion.

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