Fort Dodge Community School District

Job Opportunities

When It Comes to the Mental Health of its Students, FDCSD Tries to Focus on Whole Student - from The Messenger

October 27, 2019

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories that explore the impact of mental health on the community.

Research has shown that 70 percent of children in schools have experienced at least one traumatic event by the time they turn 16.

According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24.

The NCBH also reports that about 22 percent of children ages 13 to 18 will experience a severe mental health disorder at some point during their life, and of those with a mental health condition, more than a third drop out of school before their high school graduation.

To fight those statistics, the Fort Dodge Community School district values the mental health of its students and makes it a priority to support the mental health needs across the district.

Deb Koestner-Rees is the mental health specialist for the Fort Dodge district.

“I think we have a lot of students that have experienced trauma,” she said, adding that a trauma is anything an individual views as a traumatic experience and can vary from person to person. “So when kids have those traumatic experiences, they’re going to struggle in school, they’re going to struggle academically. And by providing a safe and secure environment, we can help those children to become more successful.”

Koestner-Rees works at Fort Dodge Senior High three days a week and at Fort Dodge Middle School two days a week, while also consulting with the district’s other schools as needed. She said even today, when school districts have put a bigger emphasis on the mental health of its students, it isn’t very common to have a mental health professional like her on staff.

table full of brochures and resources

“Fort Dodge is one of the only school districts that I know that have a full-time mental health therapist hired,” she said. “The Fort Dodge Community School District is very supportive of mental health and will continue to move forward addressing those needs with our students.”

She also added that while suicide prevention is a very important part of what the schools are trying to do, they try to focus on the “whole picture.”

Koestner-Rees noted recent tragic events that have happened in the community and said that when tragic events happen, the schools have a proactive approach to ensure students’ needs are met.

“Every time we have a situation that comes up that is large, all the school counselors and myself, we are all making a plan making sure we have enough coverage so that all the kids, if they have concerns or issues, can have that opportunity to see someone and talk about that tragedy,” she said. “We partner pretty good together with the schools.”

The schools also work to identify any students who might be particularly close to the situation and make sure they know the resources available to them and the opportunity to have a face-to-face with a counselor.

And it’s not just a tragic event that can trigger a mental health crisis or escalate a student’s needs.

For years, public schools have made the physical health of students a priority, offering hearing assessments, dental screenings and providing school nurses to treat ailments. Now, many schools, including Fort Dodge schools, have broadened that approach to include mental health.

“I do mental health screenings and depression screenings two times a year,” Koestner-Rees said. “Or I can do an assessment at any time if it’s needed.”

Students face an array of pressure coming from all directions, so monitoring and fostering good mental health before it escalates to a crisis is just as important as getting a flu vaccine to prepare for influenza season, she said.

“Social media puts a lot of stress on kids,” she added.

Students sometimes make the decision on their own to see Koestner-Rees. Other times, they’re referred to her by teachers, who have also been trained on how to identify and respond to students who are facing mental health challenges. She said once in a while, a student will also come in to tell her they have a friend they think is struggling and she’ll call them in to talk.

Inside her office, Koestner-Rees has stacks of brochures, info sheets, cards, magnets and more, all featuring the various additional resources students have available to them, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline numbers, a “lifesavers manual” from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the site for, the Iowa Department of Public Health’s Teen Line, information from The Trevor Project and a list of 20 ways to manage stress.

Many of those resources and information are also posted up around the school buildings for students who haven’t visited her office, or maybe are afraid to, Koestner-Rees said. The health class that students take also addresses mental health and resources.

In addition to addressing the mental health needs of students inside the school building, Koestner-Rees is able to give referrals to outside providers and resources in the community.

Mental health isn’t just a concern for teenagers and adults – younger students face mental health challenges as well.

When it comes to elementary school-aged students, what some people may see as poor behavior is really just the child’s way of communicating their inability to process complicated emotions that are even difficult for adult brains to handle, said Kate Simpson, an instructional coach at the elementary schools.

“When we see kids that need more support, it comes out looking like misbehavior, but it’s just their way of communicating that ‘I don’t know how to deal with this really big feeling,'” she said. “So we do what we can to help them process and teach them coping skills.”

Simpson said the schools are seeing more and more students with “trauma backgrounds,” and sometimes the schools know those backgrounds and sometimes they don’t.

“The biggest problem we see is little people overcome with big emotions and they don’t know how to process that or what to do with them,” she said.

As schools have started to understand the challenges and needs their younger students have when it comes to mental health, how they respond to situations has evolved.

“Behavior is a way of communicating a need,” Simpson said. “What is it that their behavior is trying to tell us? It’s not always just taking what’s happening at face value, it’s digging deeper, and we’ve finally started to embrace starting with empathy and understanding.”

Simpson said that the schools still want students to behave appropriately at school, but that their approach has changed from focusing on punishing the student to restorative justice. Restorative justice works to restore relationships and process emotions and help teachers figure out what they can do to meet the student’s needs.

The schools need to make sure students’ basic needs are met before their intellectual needs can be met, Simpson said. If a student doesn’t have breakfast before school and is hungry, it’s really hard to focus in the classroom. Simpson sees mental health needs through the same lens.

“The healthier we can make the whole child, the better we are able to educate them,” she said. “And it’s pretty detrimental if they don’t have all the support that they need. We see a lot more disengagement and struggle staying engaged in the classroom.”

For elementary school students with mental health needs, there is a counselor in every building, Simpson said. Teachers are also offered professional development training that focuses on mental health called Youth Mental Health First Aid.

Both Koestner-Rees and Simpson view parents and families as key players in this mission to support students’ mental health needs.

“Keeping parents updated on what’s going on is very important,” Koestner-Rees said. “We also need to reduce the stigma. I think we still have a lot of parents that don’t maybe understand that their child could have some depression or could have some anxiety.”

Open and consistent communication with parents and caregivers is a priority for Simpson, especially when it comes to explaining how and why the schools handle behavioral incidents in a certain way.

“There’s a lot of research to back up that restorative justice practices work and that the trauma-sensitive approach is the appropriate way to go,” she said. “I think the more consistent we are with it and the more we can do in partnership with those parents, they’ll see the difference at home just like we see it at school.”

The Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency offers the Youth Mental Health First Aid training throughout the year at multiple locations. The trainings are open to the public and are at no cost. Koestner-Rees and Simpson both encourage parents to participate in a YMHFA training.

The next YMHFA training that will be held in Fort Dodge is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. More information can be found at

Koestner-Rees added that supporting students’ mental health needs is still a work in progress and the schools are always trying to improve because there really isn’t a “finish line.”

She encourages students, parents and teachers who need help or know someone who may need help to reach out.

“That’s what we’re here for,” she said. “We want each and every single one of our kids in the Fort Dodge school district to be safe and to have resources or options for them. We want them to be safe, we want them to grow, achieve.”

« Back

© 2023 Fort Dodge Community School District. All rights reserved.