CHRISTIANSBURG — Controversy over the departure of a former Blacksburg High School teacher has led to Montgomery County Public Schools officials promising improvements on how they address mental health.
A small group of Blacksburg High School students on Tuesday night addressed the school board on the upcoming establishment of a mental health advisory committee that they said will begin to implement new policies and gauge community input on destigmatizing mental health.
“In March, I felt as if there was a large injustice committed in our county, and thanks to an outpouring of community support and the efforts of student activists, dedicated teachers and the collaborative efforts put forth by our central office, I believe we are on the road to change,” rising Blacksburg High senior Carson Hopkins told the board.
Hopkins referred to the abrupt March departure of former Blacksburg High history teacher Bradley Kraft.
Kraft garnered a wave of support from parents and students, many of whom questioned whether his sudden absence was tied to comments he made in the classroom about his mental health.
Kraft, who has since spoken openly about his departure, said he was told by central office to not return to the classroom — and accepted an offer of extended leave — some days after he briefly opened up to his students about his mental health.
Kraft, who has been open about his long battle with depression, said he made the comments to explain why he was canceling a research project he had assigned.
Kraft has been outspoken in his criticism of the school district. He was in recent weeks involved in a short Twitter exchange with Superintendent Mark Miear over his departure.
Kraft has criticized the school board’s oversight of his case and questioned the school district’s efforts to combat the stigma.
In a response to another user, Miear attributed the reinforcement of the negative stigma to the “circulation of misinformation.”
Miear blocked Kraft at one point. Miear later lifted the block and urged Kraft to not use profanity when tagging the superintendent in a comment.
Miear and Kraft eventually made amends and issued a joint statement on July 31.
“The situation related to Bradley Kraft stemmed from a classroom conversation had by Mr. Kraft relating to his mental health history,” the statement says. “While we continue to disagree on the appropriateness of the timing and setting of that conversation, there is mutual agreement that communication regarding the investigation between MCPS and Mr. Kraft could have been improved.”
The statement acknowledges that the case posed some significant challenges “given its unprecedented nature.” The statement, however, said appropriate conversations on mental health will be valued and encouraged in all MCPS schools.
“All staff members will receive training regarding how to talk to students about mental health needs and will learn how to refer students to the multiple resources that are available to them within MCPS,” the statement says.
Kraft initially planned to speak at Tuesday’s school board meeting, but ultimately canceled following his and some of the students’ recent conversations with MCPS.
“I’m going to be shifting my efforts to support the students working on mental health reform in the long term,” Kraft wrote in a text message. “At the end of the day, focusing on my situation only becomes anecdotal and there is nothing I would say tonight that I’ve not already said … ”
In her comment to the school board, Hopkins read off a list of several requests that MCPS administration has promised to meet. They include:
- Mental health days being factored in to the list of reasons for excused student absences.
- Providing secondary school teachers minimum basic training on detecting signs of mental health issues in students.
- Explicit writing defining the boundaries of mental health conversations in the classroom to be written in the teacher handbook and protecting teachers choosing to engage in those conversations in a constructive manner.
Miear said before Tuesday’s school board meeting that the mental health advisory committee will work to improve the communication of the district’s existing mental health services. He said the committee will also look at recommendations that could be pushed to the students services department, himself or the school board.
Miear said the committee is expected to be comprised of students, parents, teachers, student services staff and other community members.
“It’s important that this be a community conversation, not just a school conversation,” he said.