RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - As the Richmond Public Schools community continues to mourn and navigate through the tragedies of gun violence, the school district is focusing on increasing mental health services.
“I want RPS to be known as a school system that not only takes academics extremely seriously but also takes mental health seriously,” said Superintendent Jason Kamras.
RPS has continued to offer virtual counseling services to students throughout the pandemic, as well as introducing morning “community circles” where students and teachers can develop relationships and have organic conversations about what students may be experiencing. Kamras says the district is dedicated to creating environments for students to properly process their emotions.
”It’s not telling kids you can’t be mad, we are not telling kids you can’t be sad or frustrated, these are things we all experience,” said Kamras. “It is learning, just as we would become proficient readers, become proficient processors of those emotions.”
An investment in the mental health of students, staff and families within RPS is more important than ever to Kamras, especially in light of the recent shooting of five people at the Belt Atlantic Apartments which included two RPS students getting injured.
Kamras says the district looks forward to returning for in-person learning in order to offer in-person mental health services.
Dr. Ram Bhagat, Manager of School Culture and Climate Strategy, helped create mindfulness rooms within three schools in the district. The rooms are a place for students and staff to feel calm, or to meet with a counselor to process what they may be going through.
“If there is a student having some difficulty processing anger or frustration or an emotion, and that is bubbling up in class, the mindfulness room is where they can work through their emotions with a counselor and be in a place to come back to class in a more productive way,” said Kamras.
As a former science teacher, Bhagat says academics are important but says teaching students how to manage their behavior in a healthy way and practicing self-reflection of their actions and choices is also important.
“Having the rooms itself sends a message that says here is a place that values your social and emotional well-being,” said Dr. Bhagat. “When students walk in, their energy changes.”
Bhagat says at MLK Middle School there is a designated mindfulness director and students are taught how to regulate their breathing and practice what they call “reciprocal teaching.”
“Students are coming and seeking it out, those are some of the benefits. I am excited about what we learned virtually doing a lot of mindfulness,” said Bhagat. “We know social-emotional learning and mindfulness and trauma-informed practices, and community healing circles [are important]. We have those all ready to roll out next year.”
Kamras says he would like the district to reach a level of more mental health staff members.
“I would love to have a counselor for every 20 kids and not one for every 200, a social worker for every 20 kids and not one every 200, and a fully outfitted mindfulness room in every school,” said Kamras.
Bhagat says having mindfulness rooms in every school could soon be a reality as RPS is in the final round of a grant through the Kellogg Foundation called “Massive Resistance: Creating a Thriving Ecosystem for Youth of Color.”
“If we get that grant, we will have enough money to fund a mindfulness room and a restorative urban garden space in every one of our schools,” said Bhagat.
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