Human resources

Fairfield, Iowa students able to use mental health resources

Students and staff are struggling after dealing with the alleged murder of a teacher and the loss of a student.

FAIRFIELD, Iowa – The community of Fairfield was stunned by the loss of Nohema Graber in November, the woman who was allegedly murdered by two college students. And the student body was already dealing with a loss when it learned of Graber’s death.

“Our student body and staff are also dealing with a suicide that happened in the fall,” said Fairfield Community School District Superintendent Laurie Knoll. “So really, it was almost a two-week turnaround from suicide to murder.”

For the Trojans, dealing with these traumas added to the stressors of navigating the pandemic, which is why the Iowa Center for School Mental Health asked for help. The center is a partnership between the University of Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa Department of Education.

“They held meetings with our students,” Knoll said. “And they had class reunions, and they did such a phenomenal job.”

Alissa Doobay, director of clinical services at the Iowa School Mental Health Center, said her team could see right away why their services were needed.

“A lot of people felt quite isolated and alone in their experiences, or maybe they wondered, is it normal for me to feel like this.”

While dealing with murder and suicide, students and staff had the chance to deal with other issues that they may not have realized they were dealing with.

“I think the trauma and stress of those particular incidents really brought to the fore the overall challenges individuals were facing,” Doobay said. “Or maybe it reminded them of past difficult times in their lives that they may have never told anyone and hadn’t received advice, been involved in any type of support in mental health. And so we were able to process all of that with them as well.”

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The center is funded by the state and with federal COVID-19 relief funds. Allison Bruhn, executive director of the Iowa Center for School Mental Health, said it makes their services more accessible.

“So we did this for free,” she said. “It’s part of the mission to improve social, emotional, behavioral and psychological outcomes for K-12 students and educators.”

The district said services have reached all of its high school students.

“Being able to reach 500 students is such an impact,” Knoll said.

“It’s hard work, it’s heavy work,” Bruhn added. “But to see the impact that it has and that it makes a difference, and that, you know, kids and educators feel supported. That’s the most important thing.”