Political newcomer Joe Stapp decided to run for the Dawson County District 3 Board of Education seat after several parents and students expressed concern about student mental health not being adequately addressed in the school system.
Stapp, 48, has lived in Dawson County since 2004 and works as the owner and licensed psychotherapist of Blue Ridge Counseling. He has worked to provide individual, family and marital counseling for children, adolescents and adults in the community since 2009.
He previously worked as a counselor at ACCARES in Dawsonville and as clinical director and headmaster at Hidden lake Academy/Ridge Creek School in Dahlonega, a therapeutic boarding school, as well as regional deputy director and clinical supervisor with Avita Community Partners.
As headmaster at Hidden Lake Academy, Stapp supervised a staff that supported a student population struggling with behavior issues, personality disorder traits, mood disorders and addictions.
“I’m used to dealing with kids that are having behavioral problems, learning disabilities,” he said. “I also have a special needs daughter, so I’m also very familiar with the educational requirements that are necessary for kids that have developmental disabilities as well.”
He also currently serves on the Local Interagency Planning Team (LIPT) and Children In Need of Service (CHINS) boards, and recently helped found the Dawson Substance Abuse Task Force.
Working in private practice, Stapp visits Dawson County parents and students in their homes for counseling. He says that experience, along with his other professional experience in behavioral therapy and firsthand knowledge of being a parent to a student with disabilities, gives him the expertise and tools to make sure students with behavioral and developmental disabilities are adequately served by Dawson County schools.
Stapp said he feels like the special needs community is currently being underserved in Dawson County.
“It’s not due to intentional neglect, it’s due to a lack of understanding,” he said. “I think that the board does an excellent job of creating educational plans, budgets...the other part is emotional wellbeing of the kids too.”
Providing continuing education for faculty to learn how to address mental health and bullying is also an interest for Stapp, as well as keeping decision-making as local as possible. Stapp said he believes that the school system should be able to make decisions with the least amount of government intervention.
“I think parents know their kids better than bodies at the state and federal level,” he said. "Not that those are not necessary, but if they could help provide the resources and allow more of the control down at a local level that would be helpful.”
Stapp also said he would like to implement a more strength-based education program to address the different ways that students learn.
“How can we identify the areas where a child has strength and lets try to teach to those areas, with the board finding the funding for that and putting the structure in place,” he said. “Ultimately that’s up to the superintendent to come up with, but I think putting together support, for instance money, so teachers would have an option of finding a way to identify some of the strengths of the student and problem solve.”
He said he would also like to see emphasis on transportation, and reducing the time students spend on buses.
“Currently there are students that could be on the bus for an hour,” he said, “That's a long time. It would be good if we could find a way to adjust the budget to get more buses.”
Getting more input from parents on how well they believe students are being served is also an initiative Stapp said he would like to pursue.
He is married and has a 16-year-old son and 14-year-old and 12-year-old daughters.
Stapp will face incumbent Karen Armstrong in the May 22 primary election.