Student safety valve
Liz Schoeben’s therapists help school students deal with increasing pressures
by Robb Fulcher
Liz Schoeben is using a rare combination of therapeutic and entrepreneurial acumen to help students on the Peninsula avoid, or overcome the increasing pressures of school life.
Through her nonprofit organization CASSY (Counseling and Support Services for Youth) Southern California, Schoeben is making trained therapists available to Palos Verdes Peninsula school students. She established a similar program in Northern California.
Through the year, one in five of the district’s 11,500 students will visit a CASSY therapist, and the bulk of the student body will receive classroom presentations from CASSY.
Schoeben said the school partnership is a welcome reality in a nation where 80 percent of young people with mental health concerns are not getting help.
Schoeben began her professional career with Wells Fargo, selling services to small businesses, when she discovered that she “loved hearing people’s stories.” She began tutoring kids in difficult straits – kids who might have a father behind bars and an overworked mother.
In her late 20s, she left Wells Fargo and returned to school for a master’s degree in marriage, family and child therapy. Then, for the next dozen years she worked as a school-based therapist in Northern California.
A SYSTEMATIZED APPROACH
Along the way, she realized that she could make a greater difference for a greater number of kids by forming an agency to direct counseling efforts in the schools.
She and colleague Liz Llamas co-founded CASSY Bay Area in 2009. They hired trained therapists, marking an immediate upgrade from school-based systems that use graduate students who are unpaid and less trained.
CASSY became a thriving concern, thanks to Schoeben’s gifts as a counselor, coupled with her flair as an entrepreneur who can conceive, develop and administer a nonprofit organization.
“People usually have one brain or the other,” she said. “It’s hard to find a therapist who wants to run an agency.”
Schoeben worked to build CASSY from the ground up, reading a “For Dummies” book about starting a nonprofit.
She said her husband Rob Schoeben, then a marketing vice president at Apple, provided expertise and connections that helped CASSY start its life with a professional website and logo design, pro bono legal help, and a “polished look” right out of the gate.
In six years CASSY grew into a $3 million-a-year operation, serving more than 40 schools. Its success with students was confirmed with state-of-the-industry metrics. Last year, Schoeben left to seek a new horizon.
“I’m an entrepreneur,” she said. “At that point it was a really well run agency.”
TO THE HILL
Schoeben was speaking on a panel at a mental health symposium in Sacramento when she met officials from the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District.
“They wanted me to do CASSY down here,” she said.
Her experience up north spared her some growing pains with the new CASSY. In the Bay Area, she juggled the administrative and clinical functions, and worked in the schools.
“That was way too much. I learned I can’t do everything.”
This time, Schoeben hired a part-time clinical director to manage the counselors, and partnered with The Giving Back Fund, a nationwide organization that takes care of accounting, payroll taxes and other similar functions for nonprofits. And once again, Schoeben’s husband helped out.
“All this allowed us to start up the agency in less than a month,” she said.
In the high schools, a CASSY counselor occupies an office in the administration building, and is seen as “just another support” for the students.
“What we’ve found over the years is that [other students] have no problem with it. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re seeing her too, cool!’ They’re referring their friends,” Schoeben said.
“There’s a lot of social work kind of stuff,” she said. “It’s not a long, year-after-year, lie-on-the-couch-and-talk kind of thing. We help them function happily in school.”
Crisis intervention and treatment is also an important part of the work.
“A crisis is in the eye of the student,” said Schoeben. For instance, a student might say, “I broke up with my boyfriend, and he’s in my second period class,” prompting the counselor to talk the student through the situation, sort out her concerns, and return to functioning comfortably in the classroom.
“This could also be a kid, or another student or staff member, saying he plans to kill himself, and he has the means, and he has a plan, and he’s getting ready to carry it out,” Schoeben said.
In such a case, an eminently suicidal student might be hospitalized for evaluation, with the cooperation of parents, and stabilized before returning home. Then CASSY counselors help the student transition back to school.
CASSY counselors also help students cope if death strikes a student or teacher, and help with issues of drug and alcohol abuse, or inappropriate sexual behavior. They refer students for more intensive therapy for issues such as eating disorders or suicidal planning.
Nationally, one in eight young people is clinically depressed, 26 percent of high school girls have been victimized by physical or sexual abuse, including date rape. A host of other issues, less serious and less chronic, still can interfere with a student’s happy adjustment to their environment.
Although crisis counseling is sometimes needed for younger children, much of the work with them is done in classroom presentations on social skills and friend-making.
“We’re exposing almost every student to some level of emotional learning,” Schoeben said.
Data collected on the issues raised by students show a universality of experience, from affluent school districts to economically disadvantaged ones, such as the East Palo Alto schools served by CASSY Bay Area.
“Every high school has the same issues – anxiety and depression symptoms, communication with parents, the stress and anxiety of wanting to get everything done, wanting to please everyone.”
Schoeben said the pitfalls facing kids have not changed fundamentally since she attended high school in the ‘80s, but some things have changed, such as the ubiquity of texting and social media.
“We don’t turn off as well now,” she said. “We used to hang up the phone and go to sleep, or if my sister was on the phone, I couldn’t talk to my friend, and I’d just go to bed. Now they can text all night, and are exposed to the drama, and it’s hard to get a break. It doesn’t go away.”
On social media kids – and adults – have difficulty interpreting the tone of online comments, and can be tempted into too-impulsive online communication.
“Their brains are still growing, until they’re about 25, and so they’re more impulsive, it’s harder to slow down and make good decisions.”
The school district covers 80 percent of CASSY’s funding, and Schoeben, the former business banking salesperson, must fundraise the rest, which totals about $45,000.
CASSY’s effectiveness is measured through feedback from kids, parents and school staff, and by the Children’s Global Assessment Scale, commonly called C-GAS, which evaluates the level of functioning, and severity of mental illness, in children and adolescents.
CASSY Southern California’s first round of evaluative data will be compiled at the end of the school year.
“We assume it will parallel [CASSY Bay Area], where 90 percent of the students we see get better, based on the C-GAS scale,” Schoeben said.
The school district had been seeking ways to better address students’ social and emotional needs for a couple of years, said Kimberly Fricker, assistant superintendent for educational services.
Conversations with students and parent groups had underscored the need to help high school kids cope with the pressures of complex academic schedules and the increasingly competitive effort to get into desirable colleges and universities, she said.
The district hopes that addressing the social and emotional needs of younger students will help give them the resiliency they can call upon later, to handle the greater stresses that high school can bring.
“I’m very excited and enthusiastic about this partnership with CASSY,” Fricker said.
Looking ahead, Schoeben wants to expand CASSY.
“It’s important to have the district buy-in. We would like to grow district by district.” Growing would help costs low and allow for better employee training, Schoeben said.
Funding can be secured for counseling in financially disadvantaged school districts through grants, and through Title IX of the federal civil rights law.
“East Palo Alto is a very underserved community. Ninety percent of students get free and reduced-cost lunch. But sometimes these districts are easier to fund. It’s hard to write a grant for a community that has a lot of wealth,” Schoeben said.
In her limited spare time, Schoeben relaxes by kickboxing, and she volunteers four hours a week with crisistextline.org, a free, 24-hour crisis counseling text line. Rob works as a consultant for startups and fledgling businesses. The Schoebens live in Manhattan Beach, and have three sons, ages 19, 21 and 23, all born the same week in June.
For more information visit Cassysocal.org.