How Dist. 204 candidates would prioritize student mental health
The mental health of the students studying in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 is on the minds of five candidates seeking three seats on the school board for the next four years.
Candidate Natasha Grover, an incumbent running for her first full term after being appointed last October, said mental health is the top issue facing the district of 27,800 students from parts of Naperville, Aurora, Bolingbrook and Plainfield.
Others in the race ranked finances or meeting the needs of a diverse range of students as their top priorities. But all five school board hopefuls said it's vitally important for the district to support students dealing with anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm or other mental conditions.
The April 2 race features incumbents Justin Karubas, Mark Rising and Grover and challengers Carole Jones and Gautam "GB" Bhatia.
Grover, a 46-year-old attorney who lives in Naperville, said the district needs to start mental health advancement early by creating a systematic emphasis beginning in elementary school. Anxiety, she said, is striking children as young as third grade, so the district needs to consistently teach coping mechanisms to overcome it.
She said the district should implement a weekly wellness session for elementary students and begin parent education about warning signs and available resources in the early grades as well.
"We just have to make sure all the kids feel like they belong," Grover said.
Jones, a Naperville resident who works as a national retail sales manager, also said the focus on mental health should start early. She said educators need to inform students about the diversity of abilities and disabilities among their peers so kids can better understand students who stutter, blurt or struggle to focus during class.
This peer awareness, Jones said, could help students who experience these conditions avoid anxiety or depression later in their schooling.
"I believe a strong focus in elementary school is needed and important because early intervention is huge," she said.
Bhatia, a 50-year-old Aurora resident and cybersecurity engineer, said the district should rely on the expertise of nonprofit organizations to provide counseling and mental health assistance. Counselors from 360 Youth Services already help some students seek therapy without leaving their school, and he wants to see more along those lines.
"Leverage the nonprofits that are ready and willing and capable to assist," Bhatia said.
Rising, a 50-year-old Aurora resident who works in sales management and consulting, said he plans to take steps directly to strengthen student mental health by seeking to join the board of the nonprofit youth agency KidsMatter.
"I made it a point to get out there and mentor and become a youth leader myself," he said.
If money can be found in the budget, Rising said hiring more social workers would be "one of the first things that I would advocate for."
Karubas, a 45-year-old Naperville resident and attorney, said the best thing a school board member can do to promote mental health is to set an example of a high-functioning group of adults.
"That builds a culture of working together, modeling good behavior. And it permeates down, and that's our job," Karubas said. "That's how I perceive mental health. We need a higher-functioning board. Let's make the board better."