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West Fargo Public Schools creating behavioral health and wellness department

District hopes position will help streamline wellness efforts

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WEST FARGO — As the state's juvenile justice system prepares to hand more cases back to school districts and health and human resources offices, West Fargo Public Schools is creating its own behavioral and mental health wellness department that will help reach students who are not part of special education but may need additional help.

On Monday, July 25, the board approved hiring a director of behavioral health and wellness to lead staff including behavior coordinators and three social-emotional learning specialists. The department will allow issues of behavioral health and mental wellness of students and staff to be handled by specialists rather than under the special education umbrella.

"By organizing a rounded department, we'd be looking to not only have leadership that aligns a mission for this department but then how to fit the student needs," said Special Education Director Rachel Kjonaas.

The department will consist of the director, two realigned existing coordinators, a grant-funded administrative assistant currently supporting Medicaid billing and two behavior interventionist positions to extend the pilot program for K-12 intensive social skills support. There will also be a behavior team, which consists of two behavior specialists, four behavior coaches and five lead behavior technicians.

The Director of Behavioral Health and Wellness will oversee the Behavioral Health and Wellness Department.

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Kjonaas said the positions will be used to facilitate learning and focus in on behavioral health and wellness.

West Fargo School Board President Patti Stedman said moving behavioral issues out from under the special education umbrella will allow the district to reach the students who need it most.

"So many of our kids that have behavioral issues aren't on IPs (individual plans)," Stedman said. "So, they're not the ones getting help and support they really need. It will be nice to see the connection."

Although the new position was not facilitated due to the change in the justice system, Kjonaas and Communications Director Heather Leas said the timing may be beneficial as the juvenile court system will soon reject referrals for minor charges that sometimes result from student behavior issues.

Last year, 587 incidents were submitted to juvenile court by school districts across North Dakota. These cases included instances of minor theft, assault, terrorizing or school threats.

Starting in August 2023, cases of terrorizing and theft will likely be referred back to school districts or county human resource departments.

"We will really see the impact of not being able to utilize juvenile court for some of those minor offenses next year," Leas said.

Human resource offices will handle cases related to drugs and alcohol or truancy issues.

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The new director position will be funded by ESSER funds, which is federal funding that became available to school districts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The three specialist positions will be funded by title funds and a North Dakota state grant.

"We believe we have the right pieces in place. We already have good practices; we just need to coordinate them," Kjonaas said.

READ MORE FROM WEST FARGO EDITOR WENDY REUER
West Fargo Public Schools made the change to its student handbook which will apply to all schools. Fargo and Moorhead have similar policies, but they allow teacher discretion.

Readers can reach West Fargo editor Wendy Reuer at wreuer@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5530 . Follow her on Twitter @ForumWendy .

As the West Fargo editor, Wendy Reuer covers all things West Fargo for The Forum and oversees the production of the weekly Pioneer.
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