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Dogs pair with school police to support students’ mental health in Garden Grove Unified

Kids and dogs. They just go together.

Usually, though, not at school. But in Garden Grove Unified, administrators and local police are bringing trained support dogs onto campuses to help students facing stress or even trauma.

The dogs – Misha and Nellie – were introduced Monday, May 16, at Mitchell Elementary in Garden Grove during an afternoon assembly, as school and police officials announced the new collaboration to provide social-emotional support for students.

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“We care about your mental health and your well-being,” Superintendent Gabriela Mafi told students. “Mental health means asking for help when you’re dealing with something that’s too hard to handle on your own. And we all have challenges. We all face them. Me too.

“We all need a little help along the way to deal with those challenges,” Mafi said.

While the program was officially announced Monday for the district, the dogs have already made an impact at Mitchell Elementary.

In the past month or so, they have visited the school following the death of fifth-grader Vincent Trinh, offering consolation to his twin brother, Ace, and their many friends.

“Ace was having a rough day. It was his first week back to school after his brother passed,” School Resource Officer Derek Link said, “so they called us in.”

When Ace saw Nellie, an English black Labrador, he stopped “and froze in his tracks,” Link said.  Then he got down on his knees next to the dog, who licked his face.

“Then, we talked about ice cream and movies – until he sprung up and said, ‘Thanks. Bye.’”

Since then, the student has been meeting with both dogs once a week.

Other students who said the dogs have already helped them include fifth-graders Christine Le and Julie Gutierrez, who took long turns petting them after the assembly Monday and have previously met the support animals on campus.

“I had a lot of tests and it helped me with a lot of worries,” said Christine, who doesn’t have any pets at home.

Fourth-grader Emily Arias has two dogs at home, but said it still makes a difference to visit at school with either Nellie, the black Labrador, or Misha, a white retriever.

“It makes me feel better when I hug the dogs,” she said.

The idea behind the program sprung from a conversation Resource School Officer Patrick Julienne had with his 15-year-old daughter, Lily, last October.  Talking about dogs, she told her dad about a support dog a counselor brings to her school, Palos Verdes Peninsula High. Why not bring support dogs, she asked, to Garden Grove Unified’s schools?

Julienne got to researching the idea and brought in his colleague, Link, who has worked with police dogs before. To fund the program, Garden Grove Unified created the John Reynolds Youth Support Canine Foundation, named after former Lt. Reynolds, who died last year.

Misha, born in Russia and raised in Ukraine, was brought to the U.S. by a local breeder who donated the dog to the department. Nellie was initially trained as a guide dog to the blind. Both have been trained to provide support despite chaotic environments and to remain calm and supportive to strangers, without barking or becoming aggressive.

Misha lives with Julienne. Nellie lives with Link. They travel daily to different schools, bringing the dogs with them. Link said they have 50 to 100 encounters a day with students.

There have been sweet moments, such as a meeting with a third grader who hugged Nellie, said she doesn’t like police, then “five minutes later, she said she can’t wait to be a police officer,” Link said. And more serious ones, like helping a teenager who walked off campus recently expressing suicidal thoughts and was calmed after meeting Nellie, who the teenager petted until their mother arrived and the student could be transferred for a medical evaluation.

Julienne and Link, part of the Garden Grove Police Department, are among five officers assigned full-time to assist in the district’s schools, which include 45 elementary campuses and 18 secondary schools serving some 43,000 students in Garden Grove and parts of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Cypress, Fountain Valley, Stanton and Westminster.

The Garden Grove Unified program through the Police Department is unique and may be the first of its kind, not only in Orange County but the state, said Link, who has attended dog training events.

The goal, police and district officials reiterated Monday, is to offer students another level of support.

“We know that if you’re not feeling well emotionally, that it’s tough to focus and do well in school,” Superintendent Mafi said. “We never want students to feel alone.”


Source: Orange County Register

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