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Student Advocacy Coordinators making a difference

Michelle Sutherlin and Kristin Atchley have only been in their positions a few months, however, they are already pioneering how K-12 schools serve students who have experienced significant trauma.

The positions were created at the recommendation of an NPS task force charged with addressing Title IX issues such as gender-based violence and bullying. The task force highlighted an issue known to many educators; today’s school counselors have less time available for student counseling as they are also tasked with developing class schedules, maintaining course credit files and coordinating the increasing volume of state and federally mandated tests.

Ideally, school districts would hire testing coordinators to alleviate the issue, however, state funding continues to be a limited resource. So, the coordinators were hired to augment the great work school counselors were already doing and offer students another safe place to go in times of need.

Sutherlin, who serves Norman North, and Atchley, who serves Norman High, are specifically tasked with serving students who have experienced sexual assault, violence, discrimination and bullying. Their services also extend into the district’s elementary and middle schools.

After starting in May, the coordinators didn’t waste any time getting to work.

Sutherlin, formerly a school counselor at Longfellow, also has worked as a journalist and encountered trauma victims as director of emergency services for the American Red Cross.

“We spent the summer canvassing the state for existing programs to get an understanding of how our roles fit into the bigger picture,” Sutherlin said. “But we haven’t yet found any other K-12 school districts in the state - or possibly in the nation - who have dedicated roles like ours.”

Their search led them to the university scene, where positions like theirs are not new.

“We have learned a tremendous amount from universities and nonprofit organizations across the state that have provided an abundance of information and resources,” Atchley said. “Now we are combing through best practices and applying the principles in our high school settings.”

Students know they can find a safe haven in the coordinators’ and counselors’ offices at any time. In fact, students often stop in before and after school just to hang out or grab a snack if they didn’t get enough to eat at home. Providing a comforting atmosphere helps students feel safe when they need to tell someone what they’ve been through.

“I’ve already seen students who have experienced serious personal issues,” Sutherlin said. “But I’m here to go to bat for them - no matter what - and the greatest gift for me has been to see these students continue to succeed in school even in the face of tremendous adversity in their lives.”

Atchley, formerly a counselor at Adams Elementary, knows what it takes to comfort grieving students. She was a school counselor at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore when the May 20 tornado hit - resulting in devastating fatalities.

“Students who experience trauma need significant resources to recover,” Atchley said. “Michelle and I work closely together and make a great team. We’re combining our past experiences, skills and lessons learned to build a world-class program for our students. And we’re fortunate to have full support from our administration.”

For questions regarding these topics, or to file an incident report, please contact NPS Title IX Administrator Jason Brown at (405) 447-6599.