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Therapy dogs changed the culture of mental health in this Central Valley school district

The Fresno Bee - 6/3/2023

If students at Selma High School in Fresno County ever had to vote on their favorite things on campus, Jeter and Scout — two cockapoos serving as Selma Unified’s therapy dog — would be the top picks.

Since 2016, 12-year-old Jeter and 4-year-old Scout (since 2021) have played a lead role in the district’s push to destigmatize mental health issues and provide services.

They are on campus every day. During lunch, they go from table to table, interacting with students, but they seem to know where they’re needed most: the students who are sitting alone or who seem sad.

One day at lunch, as Jeter made his rounds, he gravitated to a student who had her hood over her head and just sat there with the student, refusing to leave, even when lunch ended.

The district’s mental health team approached the student and Jeter and noticed that the student’s face was covered with tears and that she was distraught but did not feel comfortable confiding in anyone. Jeter was able to detect the student’s pain when no one else could, which led to her getting much-needed help.

Selma Unified’s lead mental health clinician, Kristy Rangel, remembers another incident when a student sat in her office but had completely shut down and refused to talk. Jeter walked over and started nudging the student with his nose, signaling to be petted. Jeter climbed into the student’s lap, and the student started crying and hugging the dog.

“Then we were able to process,” Rangel said. “It’s that comfort, that judgment-free zone.

“They (Jeter and Scout) allow people to put down their defenses and allow them to open up.”

Those are a few of the countless examples of what Rangel describes as her “co-therapists” identifying students in need of support and eliminating barriers to students opening up.

“The school’s culture wouldn’t be the same without them,” Selma High senior Adam Lanas said.

What’s happening in Selma Unified is much larger than the therapy dogs. It’s a district-wide enterprise to change the culture of mental health, so students, as well as their families, know help is available.

On May 19, about 300 Selma High School students stood in line waiting to join the school’s mental health awareness activities. In one activity, they explored the differences between thoughts and feelings: Is a statement on the spinning wheel a thought or feeling? At another station, the students created a Cares Gram — a thoughtful message for someone they care about or know they can count on. A few tables down, students wrote themselves messages on small rocks, using bright-colored pens.

Students were amazed by a table full of toys, which students can actually use to soothe their five senses: 3D Pin Art Sensory toys, Needles Fidget Palm Boards and fidget slugs for touch and kaleidoscopes and RED Classic ViewMaster 3D Viewer and Collector Reels for sight.

“This will help you stay calm,” Rangel told one student.

Before Jeter, ‘no one wanted services’

But having hundreds of students participate in raising mental health awareness wasn’t always the norm in Selma Unified schools — a nearly 6,000-student district in southeast Fresno County.

Rangel and others remembered that less than 10 years ago, no one wanted to take part in mental health activities on campus.

People didn’t acknowledge mental health, she said.

Now the perception of mental health is different. Students and staff credit the therapy dogs, Jeter and Scout, who, during the mental health activities, sat in their wagon waiting for the opportunity to take pictures with students.

Selma Unified formed its mental health team in fall 2014 with two mental health clinicians to address students’ social-emotional needs such as anxiety, depression, mental health disorders, family stressors and trauma-related experiences.

The mental health team received 32 referrals for student support services in the 2014-15 school year, and 88 in 2015-16, before Jeter came.

“No one wanted services,” Rangel said about the first few years.

Students and parents often told Rangel, “‘My kid’s not crazy. I don’t need to talk to you; I’m fine.’”

She had an idea of how to change those attitudes.

Before her time in Selma, Rangel was a forensic therapist for the Napa County juvenile justice system, where they used therapy dogs to help the kids once a week after court.

“I noticed when they had the therapy dogs there, they weren’t calling me to help regulate and calm some of the youth down because the dogs were there to provide that comfort and support,” she recalled.

That’s when she and her dog, Jeter, first started training to become certified in animal-assisted psychotherapy.

When Selma Unified hired her in 2014, she suggested Jeter as a therapy dog, but the district was skeptical of the idea at first.

So Jeter worked at Valley Children’s Hospital as one of George’s Pals — dog volunteers providing animal-assisted therapy to patients.

“My big selling point to the school board was: If Valley Children’s (Hospital) trusts Jeter around their patients, why can’t we trust him around our students?” Rangel said.

At the time, other school districts had been implementing therapy dogs. Clovis Unified has used a therapy dog for several years and brings additional dogs on campus during finals week to alleviate stress as do colleges, including Sacramento State, CSU Long Beach and UC Berkeley.

Therapy dogs calm older students, help younger students acquire skills

The dogs work with the district’s mental health team to provide social and emotional learning lessons, serve as attendance incentives, respond to crises, and provide individual therapy sessions.

And with each interaction between students and the dogs, Rangel sees an impact.

To 17-year old Ronnie L., who asked not to be identified by her last name, the dogs have an unmatched “calming” presence, especially when students are upset, sad or anxious. She doesn’t bite or pick at her nails when she’s around the dogs.

“It’s comforting,” Ronnie said. “It makes you feel less tense. It’s helpful to have something to pay attention to and to smile at.”

Although based at the high school, Jeter and Scout help elementary students, too. For students who struggle with behavior issues, mental health clinicians coach them on feelings and emotions. Rangel uses Jeter or Scout in an exercise where the dogs ring a bell to answer “yes” to certain cues.

For instance, she will ask, “‘Jeter, if you are feeling sad, is it OK to talk to a trusted adult about your sadness?’ The dog would ring the bell for yes, and we will go through different feelings.”

Other games allow students to build their self-esteem by teaching the dogs tricks and identifying and discussing feelings when Jeter or Scout portray those emotions during activities.

Therapy dogs are a conversation starter, symbol to seek help

Still, services are contingent on parental consent, and Rangel explained that there are cultural, personal or religious barriers that may make parents hesitant to seek mental health services for their kids — even with Jeter and Scout involved.

The mental health team had to address those negative stigmas through student and family engagement. The district’s schools host contests challenging students to illustrate what Jeter represents and to build Jeter figures with their families.

This month, the team has organized mental health activities at each of Selma’s 10 schools.

“We’re talking openly about how everybody needs support,” Superintendent Marilyn Shepherd said.

During its mental health week, the high school had a comfort day when students could wear their pajamas and bring stuffed animals; another day was dedicated to using music as an outlet.

“Connecting something casual to these different pillars of mental health awareness is destigmatizing (mental health), and that’s what this entire month is about: being open about these feelings,” student leaders Adam Lanas and Alexis Orosco said.

This push to end the mental health stigma doesn’t stop at the schools.

Rangel extends the awareness to the community by having Jeter and Scout participate in fairs and parades and being active on Instagram and TikTok with Jeter featured in his own Mercedes-Benz or Scout playing the drums. After years of outreach, the mayor, the police chief and officers, the Fire Department and the community of Selma all know Jeter.

Jeter’s stuffed plushies are distributed across the district to students who are having a bad day to hold or hug during class and for police officers to use in comforting students they encounter on calls across the community.

It’s become commonplace for parents to say, “I need to come see Jeter,” a signal that their kids need help.

“More and more, each year, we’re breaking down the stigma of mental health,” said Lizzette Rodriguez, a mental health clinician who started in 2017. “And I think it’s, in part, because of the dogs. They’ve made such a difference. As a mental health team, we’re advocating and making ourselves visible, and that’s making a huge impact as well.”

Also, “It’s a great way to start a conversation,” Lanas said.

When people ask why a dog is on campus, those questions start a conversation about Jeter’s and Scout’s roles as therapy dogs and why they’re important. Those conversations raise awareness about the resources Selma Unified offers, he added.

Why the services are crucial for Selma

As a rural community more than 15 miles southeast of the city of Fresno, Selma doesn’t offer many services in town outside what’s offered at the school, Rangel said.

“For a lot of our families, it’s difficult to drive to Fresno for services and support,” she said.

For the services that are in the community, it takes three to six months to connect students, Rangel said.

But with its mental health team, which has grown to eight mental health clinicians and eight social workers, Selma Unified can provide services to students within a week or two.

Each school has a mental health team member on campus at least twice a week.

“Having the mental health clinicians here on campus, we have access to the students,” she said.

Because the dogs “open the door for mental health clinicians,” as the superintendent described it, the number of students receiving mental health support has grown.

Referrals for student support reached nearly 200 between August 2016 and June 2019 — up from 32 and 88 in the first two school years. Although the numbers dropped to the low hundreds during the pandemic and hybrid learning, the numbers not only rebounded but reached unprecedented numbers in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years with 362 and 935 referrals, respectively.

Ronnie, the 17-year-old who is comforted by the dogs during her therapy sessions, first sought mental health services this year because she bottles up her feelings and is often anxious.

“I knew I was anxious and that it wouldn’t get better if I had said, ‘I don’t need that,’” she said.

She doesn’t think she would have made as much progress as she has without Rangel and the therapy dogs.

By her own description, her grades were terrible, to the point that she had to attend summer school last year.

“I was very unhappy. Kristy (Rangel) helped me grow and be a happier person for myself and not for anyone else,” Ronnie said with a huge grin on her face. “And Jeter and Scout – I walk in here, and if I’m having a bad day, who’s not going to smile when they see a cute dog run up to them?”

In a year’s time, she’s improved her grade point average from around 2.0 to 4.0.

“Personally I’ve grown a lot,” she said. “That’s just based on my mental health. I see my grades go down when I’m feeling down. Kristy really helps me think about myself. It’s important to be mindful of how you’re feeling. I’m really happy. I think I’ve found family here.”

This story was originally published in EdSource.

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