Menominee Nation Culture of Health Story
In September, Menominee Indian High School opened a health clinic on its grounds, just the latest step in efforts by Wisconsin’s Menominee Nation tribe to address the root causes of student misbehavior and the school district’s achievement gap.
Menominee Indian School District Superintendent Wendell Waukau says launching the on-campus clinic was a natural progression as educators use a trauma-informed care lens to help students.
“It’s what our kids need. We’re responding to the uniqueness of our community,” he says.
Before the district embraced trauma-informed care, a student who behaved badly might have been suspended. That’s a failed model, Waukau says.
“Suspensions work for the kids who have support systems,” he says. “You get a suspension, you learn your lesson, and you come back. But what about the kids who don’t have that support? We [were] just pushing them out. We [were] sending the message that we’re not a nurturing place where you can come and be loved and supported and we’ll help you when you make mistakes.”
Bringing health-related services into the school system comes from the recognition that good mental and physical health and academic achievement are intertwined—you can’t have one without the other two. And that approach isn’t new on the Menominee Indian Reservation.
To create a more supportive environment, the district also has established classroom safe zones, where agitated students can decompress. For those students who need to break away, there is the Sakom Room, or Peace Room. Trained staff can work with the student and, given time, return them to class.
“About 80 percent of those interventions can be successful,” Waukau says. “But there’s another population, above five percent, that needs more. They’re hurting and struggling. On the extreme end, they show that by using drugs or alcohol. On a lower level, they may throw a chair.”
Those students who need additional interventions now will be referred to the student health center, which will be staffed by behavioral health professionals from the Tribal Clinic, the local wellness center, Maehnowesekiyah, and Menominee County Human Services.
Because it’s hard to concentrate on school when you’re in pain, whether that pain comes from trauma you’ve experienced outside the school’s walls or from a sore tooth, three schools in the district now also have dental chairs. Children who may not have visited a dentist before—whether because of lack of insurance or the inability to travel to a dentist office—now receive oral health services regularly.
“It’s part of a strategic effort to fill in the gaps and find the hot spots,” Tribal Clinic Administrator Jerry Waukau says. “It’s going to help our kids and keep them in that learning circle.”
The partnership makes sense, Wendell Waukau says, and not just because Jerry is his brother.
“Disparities in health and in education achievement are closely linked,” the superintendent says. “Good education predicts good health.”
The student health clinic made sense for the community because the tribe had already established other ways to address youth health issues. Funding for the project arrived from several sources: Wendell Waukau found money within the district budget, some funds arrived via community agencies and a federal Safe Schools-Healthy Students grant was secured.
“It started with the paradigm shift of doing business differently. You have to learn and understand the health needs of your community and how they are reflected in your school system,” Waukau says. “You have to have the support at the school board level and the community level. Don’t wait for the community to come to you. You have to go to them.”