Twin Lakes School Board votes on therapy dogs in schools

The Twin Lakes School Board met on June 21 to discuss and vote on the validity of the district’s two therapy dogs, Dibs and Daisy. Dibs works with Deb Bishop at Roosevelt Middle School and Daisy with Samantha McAtee at Twin Lakes High School.

During her presentation to the board, Bishop said that through her work with Dibs she saw an increase in empathy and compassion in students, a decrease in retaliatory violence, and an increase in self-esteem. She said programs she completed in classrooms with Dibs have helped students decrease stress, and anxiety, and learn coping strategies.

In addition, she said her work with Dibs in the school has assisted students in processing emotional trauma both past and present.

Her programming included weekly visits to a special needs classroom where they would read a book and implement social emotional learning (SEL), and weekly visits to Mrs. Roth’s Tribe Time to reinforce second step SEL lessons. She and Dibs would also greet students and staff in the morning.

Bishop told the board that four students had standing weekly appointments with her and Dibs for counseling resources.

“Fifty-three percent of students reported their mood improved significantly after spending time with Dibs,” she said. “Everything I did with Dibs was intentional. Behaviorally challenged students would seek Dibs out in the morning to interact with him, which gave me the opportunity to have nonthreatening and nonspecific conversations, which helped me facilitate my relationship with them.

“The most powerful kids would ‘soften’ when they saw Dibs.”

She stressed to the board the importance of therapy dogs in the school system.

“The power of a dog in the classroom is that he doesn’t’ expect anything back from students, he just offers his caring looks, happy tail wags, sweet nudges with his nose, and a calm spirit,” she said. “In a world where we are working so hard to teach our students to communicate it helps to have Dibs.”

She said Dibs wears a superhero collar at the school. The collar, she says, is a joke she has with another teacher who does not favor Pitbull breeds. Dibs is a 7-year-old Pitbull mix that Bishop says was returned to the shelter three times before she adopted him and trained him as a therapy dog.

The board voted 7-0 to grant Bishop and Dibs 4 half-days in the school, doubling their working days from the previous year.

McAtee told the board that her Tier 1 interventions included monthly social emotional themes which were aligned to the Indiana Department of Education school counseling SEL standards. Themes included growth mindset, positive emotions and strengths, goals, collaboration and teamwork, self-reflection, self-care, physical wellbeing, and relationships. This was partially accomplished by Daisy visiting classrooms, walking hallways, and greeting students, she said.

Increased Tier 1 interventions included monthly videos shown to all classes focusing on SEL themes.

“This also included information for teachers to help them facilitate discussion on the theme during our TL Time,” McAtee said. “We implemented monthly passive programming and SEL-focused announcements on the ‘Class of’ pages. These interventions were new and had never been implemented previously.

“Panorama data indicated that our students had an increased sense of SEL efficacy compared to the information Panorama data from the year prior.”

She told the board her Tier 2 interventions included small group and individual therapy. This was accomplished through a grief therapy group, which included Daisy; and individual therapy, which also included Daisy.

Increased Tier 2 SEL interventions initially, she said, were to begin a therapy group to work with students who struggled with social skills, however, following the deaths of two Twin Lakes students, McAtee changed the format of the group to a grief support group, something she says may continue in the future as the district has continued to experience loss with the death of a student just weeks after graduation.

From data gathered from students attending the grief group, McAtee said 97 % of students said they felt a decrease in overall grief symptoms, and 87 % felt an increase in the ability to utilize coping skills.

“One member, in particular, was finally able to overcome debilitation anxiety with the presence of Daisy and a close-knit group to share their story,” McAtee said. “This was a huge success for this student.”

McAtee told the board that she has obtained a grant from the Community Foundation of White County for a CharacterStrong Curriculum that will be used during the 2022-23 school year. In addition, she had a soft launch of a new program for students titled Bring Change 2 Mind and had 15 students attend. The program, she says, gives teens a platform to share their voices and raise awareness around mental health.

“Not only do the kids believe Daisy helps them, they are seeking out the counseling office,” she said.

Daisy is a 2-year-old Golden Retriever who was purchased by McAtee and her family.

After much discussion and question and answer time, the board voted 7-0 to decrease Daisy’s time in the school from 2 half-days a week down to just one half-day a week. They reasoned that they wanted to see “targeted purpose and implementation” from McAtee on her interventions including Daisy. They told McAtee they wanted her to be mentored by Bishop. Both women have had the same amount of time with their dogs at the schools.

See page 10 for an opinion piece from News & Review Executive Editor Amy Graham-McCarty on her thoughts on the vote having attended the meeting.

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