Pupils’ mental health is top of mind at Locust Valley schools


With the new school year under way — following one that stirred discussions about school safety and mental health in the wake of a school shooting in Parkland Fla. — the Guardian checked in with local districts to see what measures were being taken to develop mentally, socially and emotionally healthy students. We focus first on Locust Valley, and hope to follow up with Oyster Bay-East Norwich in the coming weeks.


At all grade levels, the district has implemented flexible, town hall-style meetings, middle school Principal Tom Hogan said, in order to facilitate open discussions about the issues students face. The meetings may focus on aspects of the curriculum, or they may deal with unforeseen circumstances. They can involve small groups, like sports teams, or larger groups, like all-boys or all-girls meetings. They can also be class-wide discussions. “We plan things in advance,” Hogan said, “but we build as we go as well. It’s about being responsive to the issues going on in the building.”

Elementary schools

For younger students, the district’s approach is about finding creative ways to teach emotional intelligence. Dr. Sophia Garry, the principal of Locust Valley Elementary School, noted a program called “Bucket Fillers” that uses a vivid analogy to teach kids how to treat one another. “When you’re saying something kind, or nice, or respectful,” Garry said, “you’re filling someone’s bucket. When a child makes a choice that might hurt someone’s feelings, you’re tipping their bucket.” She said that when they first do the exercise, students get to demonstrate the concept with physical buckets. Then, throughout the year, school faculty can talk to students about their behavior using “bucket” language, for example, prodding them with questions like, “Are you filling their bucket, or tipping it?”

Bayville Elementary Principal Scott McElhiney also noted the Lunch Bunch program, in which the school psychologist meets casually with groups of three to five students over lunch. “She teaches them social skills,” McElhiney said, “and helps them with any social and emotional issues.”

Middle school

“Middle school is a difficult time for every kid.” Hogan said. “They’ve got all the responsibility and none of the authority.” Middle school is when social media begin to play a major role in children’s lives, a fact not lost on district administrators. “Social media is really our focal point,” Hogan noted.

As they explore the digital world, kids often stumble into harmful habits; among others, cyberbullying. “We hear about it more frequently [with girls]” Hogan said. To that end, a series of all-girls town halls take aim at some social media related issues, including three sixth-grade sessions on self esteem called Beautiful Me, and three sessions each in seventh and eighth grades called Salvaging Sisterhood, which teach girls to effectively communicate with each other instead of about each other.

For boys, Michael LoGerfo, assistant principal of LVMS, said, “The factor that’s growing for boys is the [video] game consoles, where they can communicate,” over the internet with other kids they know, but also with strangers playing the same video game. The school has guest speakers, like FBI agents and people from the Nassau County district attorney’s office, to talk about “the dangers of speaking to people they don’t know.”

LoGerfo said that these presentations weren’t designed to scare kids out of using social media all together. “You have to understand, social media is part of their lives. It’s about the appropriate use of social media.”

High school

The high school health curriculum has integrated new state requirements that would help high schoolers not only understand various common mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety, but to be able to identify the signs and symptoms in themselves, and in others. According to the high school’s assistant principal, Michelle Villa, the curriculum is designed to help students be able to say, “Depression is maybe something I’m experiencing,” and then take the next step by asking, “Who can I talk to about it?” before the emotions begin to manifest as self-destructive behavior.

The district is also exploring whether to bring a program called Challenge Day to the schools. During a professional development session, district faculty tried out the program. “Everyone revealed different aspects of their background that other might not have necessarily known,” Dr. Anna Hunderfund, the district’s superintendent, said. “It gets very personal in the best way possible.”

Hunderfund said she was pleased by the feedback that the program got from faculty, and said that it left everyone with a sense that “We are the composite of all our experiences.” She hopes that teachers can bring that lesson into the classroom. “When we look at one another that way,” she said, “it builds a sensitivity for children that come to classes with aspects of their lives that might be burdensome that could lead to mental health issues.”

An anti-bullying clearinghouse

On Sept. 12, Nassau County unveiled a new website, NassauStopBullying.org, aimed at aggregating anti-bullying information for parents, which County Legislator Josh Lafazan, the driving force behind the site, said would help bring parents’ understanding of bullying into the 21st century.

“Bullying has changed drastically since the days of our parents,” Lafazan said. “It used to end at 3 p.m. at the schoolhouse doors. With the advent of social media, bullying is now a 24/7 vicious nightmare for these kids.”

In addition to educational resources for parents, the site features Chonkey the Donkey, a character created by cartoonist Michael Kellison. Kellison, 43, was bullied as a child, and has said he hopes Chonkey will help teach kids to be kind to one another.