Local principal influences state, national mental health initiativesAug 10, 2020 12:40PM ● By Jet Burnham
Principal Dixie Garrison meets with Sen. Orrin Hatch to advocate for education funding. (Photo courtesy of Dixie Garrison.)
By Jet Burnham| [email protected]
Local principal Dixie Garrison, of West Jordan Middle School, has influenced education policies at national and state levels while serving as president of the Utah Association of Secondary School Principals. Much of her work has been advocating to improve students’ mental health.
“As an educator, the biggest thing that you want to do is to have that effect on kids, to make their life better in some way,” Garrison said. “And if the message—or who I am and what I stand for and the work that I've done—if that trickles down to help save a kid and make their life better, then that's the biggest thing I've been able to do. It's not about trips to Washington D.C., which are really cool, but to have that platform.”
As Utah’s representative within the national association, Garrison met with legislators and advocated for funding for mental health and school safety initiatives and for inclusion policies for groups such as minorities and LGBTQ+.
“A lot of the state representatives are really receptive to our message—definitely the mental health and safety issues—and Congress has provided funding around those initiatives,” Garrison said.
Federal funding for the 2019–20 school year increased $1.17 billion with Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants for school counseling and mental health programs. Another $10 million was invested in the Safe Schools and Education pilot program.
Last October, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced $71.6 million to improve student access to mental health resources and school safety measures.
In Utah, last year’s Student Support Bill provided $26 million to hire more school counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses. It also helped fund mental health training and the Safe UT app. This year’s amendment defined standards for mental health screenings.
“This is the most important school counseling bill that we've had in our state history,” said Utah Rep. Steve Eliason at the bill signing in April 2019. “It appropriates a record amount of funding.”
Garrison’s own Jordan District has seen increased funding for mental health initiatives. Funds through a Project AWARE federal grant provided mental health first-aid trainings and social emotional learning curriculum. JSD committed to hiring a full-time school psychologist for each elementary school with the their 2018 budget.
JSD qualified for the maximum amount of Student Support Bill matching funding, which they used to hire additional full-time therapists and counselors, reducing their counselor to student ratios to well below state and national averages.
JSD also created a Health and Wellness Team to connect students and families with local mental health resources. This year, funding was used to sponsor more than 100 students to receive a free trial period of mental health counseling with community partners.
“That makes it not scary for a lot of families who have never explored it, who are scared about getting mental health services or who might just not be able to afford it,” said Health and Wellness Specialist McKinley Withers.
The program had a successful first year and was a valuable resource when students lost access to school services this spring due to the pandemic.
Withers said mental health support will be imperative as students come back to school amid current health and social issues.
“We have been brainstorming with our counselors and psychologists, coming up with as many different strategies and ideas to address the unique nature of all the kids coming back,” Withers said. Each school’s administration team will have the flexibility to respond to their students’ needs within their own school culture.
Garrison anticipates her students at West Jordan Middle School will need extra mental health support this year. Even though her national position term has ended, she continues to advocate for mental health and for minority and LGBTQ+ support initiatives in her school and in the state. Garrison continues to serve, as she has for the last seven years, on the Utah Suicide Prevention Advisory Board.
“The work that I'm doing is really driven by mental health,” she said. “For me, it's a real personal mission; I had a brother who died by suicide. And so, I would say the suicide prevention is the biggest thing that I'm involved in; that's the most imperative work.”