In his new role as mental health coordinator for the Grand Forks School District, Geoff Gaukler will take a broad view of how the district addresses mental health -- a topic seen by many as increasingly important in today’s world.

Gaukler, who has been a counselor for nearly 15 years, including the last eight at Red River High School, will be working to strengthen the emotional well-being of students and families. It’s a tall order, he said, but one he’s excited to tackle.

In the area of social emotional learning, for example, Gaukler will be “making sure we get, for lack of a better analogy, all our arrows pointed in the same direction,” he said.

“You can have a lot of people doing a lot of good things but it’s important that we’re making sure that everything is seamless and that we cover all our bases.”

In grade levels K-12, that will mean that “we work together, collaborate and share insights, so that there’s more seamless transitions, and we’re understanding what kids need at the different levels,” he said.

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The Grand Forks School Board approved Gaukler’s appointment at its May 13 meeting. The new position, fully funded with a federal grant, begins with the start of the 2019-20 school year.

Gaukler’s salary for the 2019-20 school year, $82,636, is subject to teacher contract negotiations.

In his new role, Gaukler intends to engage not only with counselors, social workers, school psychologists and others in the mental health professions, but “with administrators and teaching staff as well so that we can respond to the needs of today’s students,” he said.

“It boils down to, what are the needs of our students and families and how can we best serve them?”

“With the increased needs in today’s world -- and not just with the youth -- the thought was that this position could coordinate mental health services and mental health initiatives, everything from social emotional learning to professional development for staff,” he said.

In addition to school district staff, he will work with private mental health care providers and other entities such as Lutheran Social Services, The Village Family Services, Northeast Human Service Center, the Altru TEARS program and the Grand Forks Police Department.

Community issue

The stress that permeates today’s society is evidenced by increasing suicide rates and generalized anxiety or depression among youth.

“What you’re hearing in the national media and statewide media is suicide is being viewed as a public health crisis,” Gaukler said.

He and other mental health professionals want to focus on strengthening students’ mental health and resiliency at points “upstream,” or well before problems reach a crisis level.

Federal funds have been appropriated to address these issues, to help kids learn how to cope with frustrations in life, deal with challenges, and “be more prepared when they do graduate and are out on their own,” he said.

Gaukler’s appointment is one of the ways Grand Forks Public Schools has chosen to invest monies it has received through a federal Title 4 grant that supports programs “for safe and healthy students,” said Jody Thompson, associate superintendent of elementary education.

At a meeting last spring, “district staff and local agency representatives were asked what they felt was the most pressing need in our community and in our schools,” Thompson said.

“The group identified student mental health and substance abuse issues as the priority need areas,” he said.

Last fall, the district also increased the number of social workers from eight to 12 and was the first district in the state to hire a full-time substance abuse counselor, Gaukler said. In partnership with the Community Violence Intervention Center, the district is also in the process of hiring a mental health therapist.

Gaukler expects his work will impact all students, he said.

“It’s not just about kids with a diagnosis; it’s helping kids to understand how to manage their emotions, how to calm down,” he said. “The absence of a diagnosis does not mean you’re healthy.”

District staff should be prepared to help students with backgrounds that may include experience with trauma, such as abuse, or exposure to negative influences.

“We have to be mindful and aware of specific needs of students who are coming into our buildings,” Gaukler said.

Wealth of experience

Gaukler brings a wealth of experience to his new role in with Grand Forks Public Schools. He has served as a school counselor for the past eight years at Red River High School. Before that, he was a math and social studies teacher and interventions coordinator.

He earned a bachelor of science degree in middle school education and a master’s degree in school counseling, both from UND.

Gaukler has been involved in training staff and students through the use of national programs such as Sources of Strength and Mental Health First Aid.

Sources of Strength is a youth suicide prevention program aimed at increasing help-seeking behaviors and promoting connections between students and caring adults. In this program, “anybody in your building that has a role with children is seen as a connector to help,” he said.

Mental Health First Aid provides training for adults to recognize and respond to mental health issues. The district is planning to roll out a “teen component” of this program, which will help students recognize and respond to peers’ mental health issues, he said.

“We are working with some of that at the middle and high school levels,” but this will be a more systematic way of approaching the issue, he said.

At this point, Gaukler is seeking input from “all stakeholders -- parents, students, community members and school district staff” and researching strategic plans locally and around the country, he said.

“We’re not re-creating the wheel, but (the strategic plan) needs to be specific to Grand Forks, North Dakota.”