GHS School Resource Officers Talk about Impacts of Pandemic on Student Mental Health

By Jack Gibson

A recent rise in national attention to mental health has led to a large shift in how the topic is portrayed in our popular culture. Locally, authorities have begun to take note and dedicate more efforts toward assisting and maintaining a healthier community. One of the most notable aspects of this ongoing mission is the emphasis placed on youth.

School Resource Officer Chris Wallace at Greenwich High School, May 26, 2022 Photo: Jack Gibson

It has been 15 years since Greenwich Police and Board of Education established the School Resource Officer (SRO) program.

Through this program, officers are stationed at Greenwich High School in order to provide resources to the high school and district as a whole. They carry a myriad of responsibilities, but one of the most prominent that is all too often overlooked, is their role in mental health crises.

The importance of the mental health portion of the duty of the SROs has never been more clear or prominent. The SROs said there have been days in which as many as 10 risk assessments come in, one stacked atop another.

“It’s an ongoing battle,” said SRO Chris Wallace. “I think it’s something that people don’t realize just how big of a problem it (mental health) is.”

Wallace and SRO Fred Reisch are both currently working at Greenwich High School. They are both certified in ‘crisis intervention,’ which comes as a result of training in dealing with those who are going through a mental health crisis.

“Most of our officers are certified in that,” said Wallace. “We both also have training for juveniles and how to deal with them because their brains are still developing, so they might react to things a little differently than adults will.”

These qualifications are a necessity, as the SROs are so heavily involved in mental health crisis intervention. They receive every ‘risk assessment’ submitted by those involved in the district and act accordingly. An assessment can be a multitude of things, but they are usually the opinion of a mental health professional associated with the school on the best courses of action to take with an at-risk student.

“We would receive the assessment from, for example, a social worker or psychologist and we would review it, if they haven’t already called us,” Reisch said. “We’ll look it over and if we feel the child needs immediate medical care at the time we will call the parents, call an ambulance and they can get checked out that way and be evaluated at the hospital. That’s one way we would handle it, but again, we review it, and depending on how severe or serious the assessment is, we would follow up with the parents and offer any more support that may be needed.”

Through this large role the SROs play in crisis intervention, comes first hand accounts of why this relatively recent increase in attention is so important.

“I’ve been an SRO for three years, so I was here before COVID, during COVID and now,” Reisch said. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve definitely seen an increase in ‘risk assessments’ for kids. So that could be self-harm risk assessments or assessments that are threatening in nature.”

This increase in reports comes at a time when there are so many possible reasons for a drop off in the quality of mental health among young people, but it is awfully difficult to discuss any of these factors without mentioning the pandemic shaped elephant in the room.

“There has definitely been an uptick (in assessments),” Reisch said. “Honestly I think it’s mainly because a lot of the kids have been kind of cooped up at home and weren’t able to come to school. At school they have a lot of access to support systems like a social worker, a psychologist and I know at GHS they have family centers which are right across the hall as well.

SROs Christopher Wallace and Fred Reisch at the Boys and Girls Club’s Thanksgiving feast on Nov 23, 2021

There’s a lot of services for these kids and I think that with COVID some of them didn’t have the access that they’d normally have here,” he explained.

The importance of the mental health portion of the duty of the SROs has never been more clear or prominent. The SROs said there have been days in which as many as 10 risk assessments come in, one stacked atop another.

With crisis intervention’s importance and required energy growing, it has led to a search for more potential support strategies. A recent one, seems to have been showing early signs of success.

“A lot of police departments are now using therapy dogs and assigning them to officers to have,” Officer Wallace, said when describing more recent measures taken in response to the uptick in cases.

“So I reached out to a couple of them and actually made a really good connection with Yale
PD’s therapy dog, Heidi and officer Simons.”

This connection seems to have been an extremely positive one. Heidi has already made her way to Greenwich High School multiple times and will be visiting more in the future.

Double hugs during a visit of therapy dogs from Therapy Dogs International at GHS during exam week. Jan 18, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager

Both officers are aware of the fact that this is far from over, and there is still much more to be done. It was clear, however, that the success of this added support was a testament to how gratifying this aspect of the job can be when gotten right.

“Having that relationship, where we can basically have Heidi come anytime is just fantastic because you can really see the change in the kids’ behaviors,” Wallace said. “Especially when they’re going through a crisis. We actually had the chance to see that effect and it really, really changed how that student was feeling that day. It really was for the better. So that’s one additional thing that we’ve added to our repertoire as one might say.”

See also:

Drastic Rise Seen in Need for Mental Health Care for Children Since Pandemic

May 19, 2022