One student had lost a beloved pet. Another was grieving about the death of a grandparent. Yet another was overwhelmed with missing school due to being identified as a close contact to a person who contracted COVID-19.
Their circumstances were quite different, yet all needed a few precious minutes to compose themselves. Yet where do you find refuge during a busy school day?
At Cuyahoga Heights High School and Middle School, there is now such a space -- the newly opened John’s Safe Place located in the schools’ shared Guidance Office. John’s Safe Place provides a dedicated, safe space for students to go to during difficult times and gives them the ability to reach out for counseling and support.
“During times of stress, sometimes students are just not ready to open up or are not in the mood to talk to an adult,” said Holly Thrasher, guidance counselor at Cuyahoga Heights High School. “We let them go in and have a little bit of a time to themselves until they are ready to talk. It gives them space to calm down and regroup.”
The room was the inspiration of Rick and Beth Haney, who have been creating safe spaces in local schools for the past few years. The Haney’s founded the John C. Haney Memorial Foundation to honor the memory of their son, John, following his suicide in 2017 at the age of 23. John suffered silently from depression. By creating these spaces, the Haney’s hope to share John’s story to raise awareness about depression and empower young people to feel comfortable coming forward regarding mental health issues. The first “John’s Safe Place” was installed at Fairview Park High School, which was John’s alma mater.
Each room costs between $2,000 and $3,000 and is furnished with soft cushy furniture, including bean bag chairs, cozy pillows, low lighting, and even a 75-gallon fish tank. Students can work out their frustrations by listening to calming music. A variety of sensory activities, such as coloring books, handheld puzzles, and stress balls, allow them to use their hands to work out their frustrations. Artwork on the walls features inspirational sayings. Even the grayish-green wall color was specifically chosen for its calming influence.
“It’s been a great asset,” said Audrey Labenz, Cuyahoga Heights Middle School guidance counselor. “We found that middle schoolers respond well to being in the room.” Judging from the students themselves, John’s Safe Place is accomplishing its goal. "The room helps me calm down when I get anxious or need a place to sift through my thoughts," said one student. "John's Safe Place has been helpful for me to relax and compose myself before talking about what's going on," remarked another.
Both Labenz and Thrasher agreed that because teens are inexperienced with life’s challenges, many have not developed the coping skills needed to deal with problems such as stress over grades, getting assignments done, worries about their future, and dealing with relationships.
“A lot of anxiety has increased since returning to the building (after learning virtually last school year),” noted Thrasher, “There’s been some increased anxiety due to social interaction among peers. Some students are angry and may want to be physically aggressive, so the room provides a distraction for students who have those kinds of thoughts.”
According to the counselors, most students need only about 10 or 15 minutes of alone time to calm down and collect their thoughts. “Just getting out of the school environment seems to do it,” noted Thrasher, who learned about John’s Safe Place after volunteering to assist students as a member of a county crisis team. She inquired about bringing John’s Safe Place to Cuyahoga Heights and things evolved from there.
Now that John’s Safe Place has opened, both counselors plan to work more closely with teachers and staff to raise awareness of the room and explain how and when it is to be used.