A plan to improve the social, emotional and mental health of Lee County students was unanimously approved by the Lee County Board of Education during its regular meeting Tuesday.

The plan, mandated by the state, includes a suicide risk referral protocol and mental health training for teachers and staff dealing with children in grades K-12. The additional training will address suicide prevention, substance abuse, teenage dating violence and sexual abuse and sex trafficking prevention, according to the plan.

The district already has several mental health programs in place, including a mandatory seminar for students found in possession of drugs or alcohol; trauma training for staff at B.T. Bullock and Tramway Elementary schools; and district-wide training on bullying, child abuse and other issues.

The plan recommends trauma and resilience training for all district staff, teaching social and emotional health in the classroom and increased efforts to identify at-risk students early.

One challenge to mental health care is also the shortage of specialized mental health staff, the plan noted. During discussion Tuesday, board member Sherry Womack also questioned if the school district employs enough counselors and social workers.

The district currently has 24 counselors and six social workers, according to Johnnye Waller, assistant superintendent of Auxiliary Services and director of Student Services. That’s more than some districts, but still below the state-recommended ratio, according to Womack.

Chairwoman Sandra Bowen and board member Christine Hilliard noted that the district is limited by their local budget. The school board has previously petitioned the Lee County Board of Commissioners for money to hire additional support staff with no success. One alternative may be to use federal COVID-19 money to hire additional positions. Superintendent Andy Bryan said staff have been discussing the hiring of more counselors, social workers and nurses.

The plan drew some concerns from residents of Lee County, including Sandra Jones, who commented Tuesday that she was worried about the confidentiality of student mental health records. Waller reassured the board that records kept by support staff are almost entirely digital and accessible only to mental health staff.”

“The only persons that have access to those documents are myself, as I have countywide access to PowerSchool, and the counselor or social worker at that school,” Waller said. “I am confident there is not a group of counselors, social workers, mental health personnel in the country that values confidentiality any more (than we do).”

New board attorney officially hired

A contract for the school board’s new attorney, Stephen Rawson of Tharrington Smith, was also approved Tuesday. Jimmy Love, who has represented the board for more than 40 years, retires from Lee County Schools on June 30. Love will continue his work as attorney for Central Carolina Community College, he said.

The contract reflects the rates Tharrington Smith initially presented to the board — the law firm will charge $235 per hour for legal work by partners, $210 per hour for associates and $110 per hour for paralegals. The firm also charges for travel time.

Before voting in favor of the contract Tuesday, Womack asked that the firm provide a monthly invoice detailing their hours of work and charges, per a recommendation by the N.C. School Boards Association. Chairwoman Sandra Bowen was amenable to the recommendation, but said the change should come from the policy committee rather than be made a part of the contract.

Also Tuesday, the school board unanimously approved the purchase of 25 Apple computers for the Career and Technical Education lab at Lee County School. The computers currently used by the school are more than 10 years old, said program Director Gary Hart.

The total cost of the computers is $82,974, and also includes two MacBook pros for the instructors at Lee County and Southern Lee high schools, Hart said.

“Those will be used to do some research for us,” he said. “With Apple coming to the Research Triangle, we’re looking at maybe adding some programming courses (and) cybersecurity courses to our program. There are some free resources over the summer these instructors can take advantage of and give us some feedback if this is a good area for us to pursue.”

Also Tuesday, the board of education approved:

• a $141,135, five-year contract with software company EMS-LINQ for new financial software for the Child Nutrition Department;

• the purchase of 1,000 Chromebooks at a cost of $245,960;

• a $43,290 contract with tech company Clark Powell to replace the audiovisual system in the Lee County High School board room;

• a $31,800 contract with plumbing company Baker Mechanical to install water bottle filler stations in the central office, bus garage and maintenance shop;

• vehicle and general liability insurance for the Lee County Schools 2021-22 school year at a total cost of $76,955; and

• a date for an online auction to sell surplus vehicles, mowers and other Lee County Schools equipment no longer in use. The auction starts at 9 a.m. June 28. Visit govdeals.com/LeeCountySchoolsNC on the day of the auction to bid.