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Black school nurse fills a need for students of color

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — If you step into the office of Monica Mitcham, you’ll see kid after kid after kid coming to pay her a visit.

Some have a few scrapes and tummy aches and for those, she has various cures as the beloved school nurse of Herron Preparatory Academy. But other students come for emotional reassurance.

“They need to feel like, ‘Whatever my color, whatever my culture, whatever my economic background, I’m going to be given the same opportunities, I’m going to be giving the same love the same attention, the same nourishment,’” said Mitcham.

Mitcham, African-American, has been in nursing for 33 years. Her office looks more like a place of comfort rather than a typical nurse’s office with Christmas lights, inspiring décor, toys, and calming music.

Her experience in places like juvenile detention, prisons, and long-term care has given her the skill set to give her patients what they need. She says once she became a school nurse, she found her true passion.

“I’m going to be an old lady, and you’re not even going to remember me [and I’ll say,] ‘Look at him, running for president!’ and they laugh,” she said, describing her conversations with her elementary kids. “They laugh at me, which is good because if they’re laughing, they’re listening.”

When Mitcham became a school nurse, she fell into part of just 4.8% of Black school nurses nationwide, according to data from the National Association of School Nurses. Her relationships with students are an even rarer gem.

“I look around at a conference or a meeting, I don’t see a whole lot of faces of color,” explained Deb Robarge, the executive director of the Indiana Association of School Nurses.

“School nurses level the playing field for students that are of low economic status or students of color because we provide services without needing an appointment, transportation, insurance, any of those things,” Robarge said.

Robarge says state data on school nurse demographics is hard to come by. I-Team 8 found that to be true.

Out of all the school districts in Indianapolis, only two were able to confirm the percentage of school nurses they had of color. Both have less than two percent.

“They all have that basic need for affirmation and for nurturing, even when they’re getting it at home,” said Mitcham. “We watch [for things like] hidden homelessness and food insecurity.”

Mitcham is an example of not only the importance of diversity in the school nurse profession but of the need for more. A November 2018 report from the Indiana Department of Education found that 1,017 nurses responding to a statewide survey reported a ratio of roughly one nurse per 917 students. 

“When you’ve dried their tears and you’ve made them feel better… It’s rewarding to be able to say you know, ‘I’m going to be here tomorrow, right?’” Mitcham said. “Having grown up a young black girl, I know what they need to feel. And I can give them that.”