“It’s really a privilege to do this kind of work.”
During the past 32 years, Cam Short-Camilli has touched the lives of thousands of Cherry Creek Schools students and families. First as a school social worker, and later as a social worker in the role of the district’s mental health coordinator, she has helped them deal with daily challenges and supported them through life-altering crises. For more than three decades, she has watched school mental health needs evolve and expand. Through it all, there has been one constant.
“We’re here to support kids’ success in school,” Short-Camilli said.
A Michigan native, Short-Camilli headed off to Western Michigan University thinking she would study journalism. But after several life experiences where she helped others “get through some tough things,” she decided she wanted to pursue a career in a field that allowed her to do more of that. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work at WMU and followed that with a master’s degree in social work from Michigan State University.
Life then took her to Colorado, where she got her first job in the mental health field doing in-patient psychological work with both children and adults at the Fort Logan Mental Health Center. Next, she took a position as a social worker at University Hospital in Denver, supporting children with acute or long-term illnesses and their families. Clearly, she had found her calling.
In 1986, Cherry Creek Schools hired Short-Camilli as a school social worker at Greenwood and Indian Ridge Elementary Schools. At the time, school social work had evolved from the model established in the 1960s and ‘70s. During those decades, outside or contracted social workers and psychologists provided some mental health support, did special education testing and handled the occasional crisis. In the 1980s, the model moved toward school-based social workers and psychologists who were district employees. They provided those initial services, began forging important partnerships with parents and community members, and were involved in reporting suspected child abuse.
Short-Camilli spent eight years as an elementary school social worker, first at Greenwood and Indian Ridge and then at Greenwood and Peakview elementary schools, which all had specialized programs including Integrated Learning Centers and Behavioral Development Programs that served special education students. Working with those students and their teachers and families was one of her passions.
“At that time, special education was changing from being really separate and isolated, to inclusion and integration. I loved being part of that whole process,” Short-Camilli explained. “I’ve always liked working with special education programs in terms of understanding what’s going on with kids and families and being able to support them.”
In the 1990s, school mental health professionals became specialists and interventionists, providing ever-greater support to schools, students and families. They served an increasing number of students who were diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Bipolar Disorder. Their growing responsibilities included bully-proofing, promoting a positive school climate and dealing with truancy issues.
In 1994, Short-Camilli moved to West Middle School, where she spent the next 13 years as the school’s social worker.
“I loved worked with elementary kids, but when I got to West, I found I really enjoyed middle school-aged kids with the changes and excitement and helping with the traumas of adolescence,” she recalls. “I loved that age group.”
While Short-Camilli was at West, national tragedies, including the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School and the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, forever changed our society and “how we felt about the world.” Short-Camilli said children and adults alike experienced more anxiety and more depression. The onset of the internet age compounded those problems for many people.
“The interconnectedness through social media has had a lot of benefits, but it’s also added a lot of pressure that kids didn’t have before,” Short-Camilli said. “In my career, it’s always been about what you could do to make sure the next generation doesn’t have the same issues, but unfortunately, while the focus is still on that goal of prevention, it is also significantly on mitigating, addressing and treating the many social/emotional challenges students, families and society are facing.”
The role of school mental health professionals expanded again and again, as they added school safety, threat assessments, cyber-bullying prevention, racial and gender equity, suicide prevention and much more to their daily tasks.
In 2007, Short-Camilli moved to the district level as a mental health coordinator and attendance coordinator, where she dealt with truancy cases, often handling a caseload of more than 100 students. She attended truancy court and worked with parents and community agencies to determine the underlying reasons students were truant and develop solutions that would get them back in class.
“I really liked doing the truancy work,” she said. “I’ve always liked working with parents and felt like I was making a difference for some kids - not for all, but for some.”
Some five years later, the district hired a full-time attendance coordinator to handle truancy cases, and Short-Camilli changed her focus to managing the district’s growing mental health team.
“I love recruiting and interviewing and hiring and really trying to find the right person for the right school,” she said. But even more, she loves “training, coaching, nurturing and helping them grow… supporting the people who are out there supporting the kids.”
Short-Camilli is proud of the Cherry Creek School District’s commitment to mental health. The district has a mental health professional – either a social worker or a psychologist or both – in every school in the district, including preschool sites. That team will grow from 130 people in the 2017-18 school year to approximately 140 in 2018-19. In addition, the district continues to expand programming and community partnerships to allow the district to meet the needs of whole schools and individual students.
As Short-Camilli prepared to retire at the end of this school year, she was presented with the first Cam Short-Camilli Enduring Excellence Award, which will be presented annually to a district employee who “demonstrates enduring excellence, professionalism, compassion, advocacy, integrity and grace in the service of mental health.” Those who have worked with Short-Camilli during the past 32 years say her contributions to the well-being of CCSD students, staff and families cannot be overstated. She will be missed.
Thanks to Dr. Ron Lee, CCSD Director of Mental Health Services, for providing the history of mental health services in Cherry Creek Schools.