Officials talk safety, mental health resources for Ottumwa schools

Congressman Dave Loebsack meets with representatives of the Ottumwa School District.

Safety and the availability of mental health resources in our schools has always been an important topic, but especially so after the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.

Teachers, counselors and mental health professionals, along with Ottumwa Superintendent Davis Eidahl and Evans Middle School and Ottumwa High School principals Dave Harper and Mark Hanson, respectively, met with Congressman Dave Loebsack Monday afternoon to discuss safety in Ottumwa's schools.

The key words of the roundtable discussion seemed to be "proactive" and "resources". Ottumwa has been proactive in initiating drills and procedures in the event of an emergency situation. There are weekly student assistance meetings, the schools hold intruder drills, there are three uniformed officers -- two at the high school and one in the middle school -- during the school day and there is a mental health professional in every building in the district.

There will also be security measures implemented in Ottumwa's new elementary school, which is under construction and scheduled to be open in the fall of this year.

"I was very pleased to hear about the procedures in place here in Ottumwa," Congressman Loebsack said. "In fact, I think there are lessons that can be taken here and applied elsewhere."

Superintendent Davis Eidahl told the group the district's approach safety in Ottumwa's schools is twofold -- first, the implementation of an inviting and supportive school culture and second, the resources available to students dealing with any sort of mental health issues. The key, school officials said, is balancing safety with a welcoming environment.

And of course, continuing these policies and improving upon them all depends on funding and resources.

"It's about resources, about making sure we have people in the schools, making sure we have folks in the community, especially on the mental health front, who are trained and equipped to deal with these kinds of issues," Congressman Loebsack said. "It really does come down to that, there's no doubt that we have a need in Iowa, especially in the more rural areas, for more mental health professionals and really commitments have got to be made along those lines."

As a part of the Safe and Supportive Schools grant, staff, students and parents in the Ottumwa School District were surveyed, and OHS Principal Mark Hanson said safety in the school was the area where everyone surveyed gave the highest marks. But there is always more that can be done.

The general consensus of the roundtable was that the biggest need in Southeast Iowa is mental health providers. Many facilities are too far away and parents are reluctant to send their children there, or funding and transportation is an issue.

Many of the discussions participants asked to consider viable alternatives like tele-health programs for our area, and also voiced concerns over the mental health redesign, fearing the worst for Ottumwa and Southeast Iowa in the way of funding and resources after the redesign is complete.