Trillium Lakelands District School Board (TLDSB) has unveiled a new three-year plan to bolster its mental health services and ensure all students feel safe at school.

Addressing trustees at a meeting of the board Feb. 28, superintendents Kim Williams and Jay MacJanet said student safety is the board’s number one priority, outlining several steps staff have taken in recent months to ensure local youth feel secure and protected while in the classroom.

This comes after a student climate survey conducted last year among children from Grades 4 to 12 revealed only 51 per cent of participants felt safe at school, while between 31 and 42 per cent stated they were dealing with moderate to high levels of anxiety.

“The Ministry of Education would like us to have every single one of our students feeling safe at school, and we have a three-year plan to reach that goal,” Williams said. “To help us, we need to shift the way our mental health counsellors are working in schools and with students. Rather than working individually with students, we are looking to increase the time they spend working with multiple students, either in small groups or within the classroom.

“For us to reach all our students, we need a different approach,” she added.

Starting this year, the board’s mental health counsellors will spend 50 per cent of their time coordinating with teachers and working inside the classroom, with Williams saying recent data suggests students respond better while being engaged in a group setting. Individual sessions away from the classroom will still be available for students with more extreme needs.

Director of learning, Wes Hahn, said students in Grades 7 and 8 recently completed portfolio presentations on mental health to great success.

“What it’s doing is exposing students to situations where they feel comfortable talking to adults about mental health, talking to their friends about it, and giving opportunities to mental health counsellors to interact with students and staff to help them through the difficult times they are experiencing,” Hahn said.

MacJanet said TLDSB is also working with community partners, such as Point in Time in Haliburton, to ensure students in need are provided with more in-depth supports when they’re not at school. He also noted the board had partnered with School Mental Health Ontario to provide additional resources to students to support their mental health and wellbeing.

The board is hoping to launch a mental health advisory group in the spring, consisting of teachers, principals, support staff and mental health counsellors.

“We need their input and feedback so we can get better and pivot towards the needs of our students,” MacJanet said. “This is an opportunity for our system to have a voice and show us what they’re seeing boots on the ground… tell us what we’re doing well and where we can do better.”

Hahn said the board will run another student climate survey this year.

“We want to make sure that we keep checking in with our students – that data is really valuable for us and helps identify [whether the changes we’ve implemented are working],” Hahn said.

“We are 100 per cent dedicated… to providing safe, caring and supportive learning environments for our students.”