Advocacy from the Heart in Washington County

Students, parents, and educators create a new group to get to the heart of the matter

Matias Meza shares concerns about cyberbullying at a PESO meeting in Washington County.

Advocacy comes from need and need comes from the heart. Washington County students, educators, and parents have filled a void in public school advocacy with a new group called PESO — it’s the Parent, Educator, Student Organization, an independent citizen-led group founded by its members and focusing on community-building discussion and action to improve the county’s schools and communities.

Carlos Mellott, MSEA UniServ director for the Washington County Teachers Association and a member of PESO, says the group grew from the need for dedicated advocacy, something missing in the current landscape. “The issues outweighed what was available for folks. PESO does not fundraise, instead we focus on outreach to build the group and on open and honest discussions of the issues. Our county eliminated our Citizens Advisory Council years ago and people needed and wanted a space where their voices could and would be heard.”

At a Board of Education meeting in October, Brian Brown, a senior at Washington County Technical High School, was one of several PESO members to speak up about the lack of school counselors available to students at every grade level. School-based mental health supports are a problem in every county in the state and are among the issues studied by the Kirwan Commission on school funding.

“Sometimes students need guidance that our teachers can’t provide,” Brown said. “We need to make our school environments better by adding more counselors.” PESO members, including parents, provided county school counselor ratios (250 students to one counselor is recommended) and anecdotal support to Brown’s comments.

Their concerns were echoed at a recent PESO meeting when student member Matias Meza shared his experience with the mental health effects of cyber-bullying and the destruction it brings: “In my school, there have been five attempted suicides. We have just two counselors for our 800 students. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Shortly after PESO’s advocacy in October for more and better mental health services, the school system hired 16 paraeducators — added positions that will build confidence in students, showing that they are valued and heard.

“Our goal is to make a dent in some of the issues that people are passionate about, and students are passionate about the need for more guidance,” Mellott said. “Students are welcome in PESO and we place high value on their voice.”