Mil­lions for men­tal-health help

Schools fi­nally get­ting state aid in wake of Park­land

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate San­tich Staff Writer

Af­ter years of “beg­ging” the Leg­is­la­ture for more re­sources, Cen­tral Florida schools are get­ting mil­lions of dol­lars to spend on men­tal health coun­selors and ser­vices for stu­dents this year — a re­sult of the Park­land school shoot­ing that left 17 peo­ple dead.

Each district is sub­stan­tially in­creas­ing the num­ber of coun­selors, so­cial work­ers or psy­chol­o­gists; train­ing per­son­nel on warn­ing signs; and some­times of­fer­ing par­ents ed­u­ca­tional ses­sions on men­tal health. Some districts are even set­ting aside money to cover unin­sured and un­der-in­sured stu­dents so they can get ad­di­tional men­tal health treat­ment in the com­mu­nity.

Other districts plan wide­spread screen­ing of stu­dents for men­tal ill­ness symp­toms, much like they do for vi­sion and hear­ing prob­lems.

“This is what we’ve been beg­ging for,” said Kris­tine Landry, an ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­o­gist and di­rec­tor of stu­dent ser­vices for Lake County Schools, which is re­ceiv­ing an ad­di­tional $1,044,000. “I know it’s be­cause of this great tragedy, but if it helps

to bring these men­tal health ser­vices to the schools, we can make those deaths mean some­thing.”

In the years lead­ing up to Fe­bru­ary’s mass shoot­ing at Mar­jory Stone­man Douglas High School in Park­land, al­leged gun­man Niko­las Cruz, 19, had been re­ported to au­thor­i­ties re­peat­edly for vi­o­lent and dis­turb­ing be­hav­ior — in­clud­ing plans to hurt him­self and oth­ers.

Florida law­mak­ers re­sponded to the shoot­ing by quickly pass­ing the Mar­jory Stone­man Douglas High School Pub­lic Safety Act, much of which is di­rected at im­prov­ing school se­cu­rity and han­dling threats. But the law also pro­vides $69 mil­lion to es­tab­lish or ex­pand school-based men­tal health care with an “ex­pec­ta­tion” that ev­ery stu­dent in the state will have ac­cess to a men­tal health pro­fes­sional at school this year.

“It’s fan­tas­tic,” said Candice Crawford, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Men­tal Health As­so­ci­a­tion of Cen­tral Florida, which has lob­bied for more state fund­ing for years. “A lot of these chil­dren, and es­pe­cially at-risk kids, tend to end up in the ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem with­out ever hav­ing been eval­u­ated for men­tal health is­sues or given any ser­vices. And then peo­ple just write them off as bad. The long-term im­pact of this is go­ing to be re­mark­able.”

In Or­ange County alone, the state is pro­vid­ing an ad­di­tional $4.7 mil­lion for men­tal health ser­vices.

The money is pay­ing for an ad­di­tional 51 pro­fes­sion­als, in­clud­ing school psy­chol­o­gists, men­tal health coun­selors, be­hav­ior an­a­lysts and be­hav­ior coaches. The district did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment on the changes, but a copy of its plan states, “All stu­dents will re­ceive so­cial-emo­tional and be­hav­ioral cur­ric­ula. Ad­di­tional re­sources, both per­son­nel and train­ing, will pro­vide schools and learn­ing com­mu­ni­ties with men­tal health aware­ness. …”

Pre­vi­ously, the district em­ployed 13 li­censed men­tal health coun­selors and it had — and con­tin­ues to have — a con­tract with the non­profit Chil­dren’s Home So­ci­ety of Florida to pro­vide ad­di­tional help.

While only 3 per­cent of vi­o­lent crime is com­mit­ted by peo­ple with se­ri­ous men­tal ill­ness, sup­port­ers of the ad­di­tional re­sources say they’ll give schools the chance to in­ter­vene be­fore trou­bled stu­dents drop out, over­dose or take their own lives.

“I would en­cour­age any­body to get coun­sel­ing,” said Den­niseya Pugh, 19, who grad­u­ated in June from Evans High School, where she says men­tal health ther­apy helped her heal from years of trauma. “I would al­ways say do it. At the end of the day, if it’s hurt­ing you … speak on it.”

Chil­dren’s Home So­ci­ety has 25 coun­selors who meet with stu­dents in 136 schools in Or­ange, Osce­ola and Semi­nole coun­ties. More than a quar­ter of the kids they see suf­fer from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, as Pugh did — the re­sult of long-term phys­i­cal and emo­tional abuse.

“At first, they said I had anger is­sues be­cause I got in a lot of fights,” she said. “But I was just keep­ing ev­ery­thing to my­self, and it was all bot­tled up. … There was one [point] where I thought life wasn’t worth it.”

Her coun­selor, San­dra Nonez-Mera, in­ter­vened, get­ting her ad­di­tional help to sta­bi­lize dur­ing a per­sonal cri­sis. In June, Pugh grad­u­ated with hon­ors and is now in nurs­ing school on a schol­ar­ship.

“We know this kind of in­ter­ven­tion can im­pact the path of a child’s life,” said El­iz­a­beth Lane, co­or­di­na­tor of stu­dent ser­vices for the school district of Osce­ola, which is re­ceiv­ing an ad­di­tional $1.6 mil­lion from the state and hir­ing 16 more men­tal health providers. “We are heart­bro­ken for the rea­son this came about, but I am be­yond thrilled to be able to pro­vide these ser­vices to our stu­dents.”

In Semi­nole, also re­ceiv­ing an ad­di­tional $1.6 mil­lion, the district is hir­ing 10 men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als. It also will train all per­son­nel on a “Youth Men­tal Health First Aid” cur­ricu­lum, form a cri­sis team to sup­port stu­dents and their fam­i­lies, and hold par­ent ed­u­ca­tion nights on bul­ly­ing, sex­ting, sex traf­fick­ing and other is­sues.

Many of the districts have not yet worked out the de­tails of their agen­das, and there are still many unan­swered ques­tions.

In Lake, for in­stance, Landry said she’ll be form­ing a com­mit­tee to de­cide how to con­duct screen­ing pro­ce­dures for men­tal ill­ness — and what will hap­pen with the in­for­ma­tion col­lected.

“It’s go­ing to be so im­por­tant to [dis­cuss] this with par­ents and com­mu­nity part­ners,” she said. “I get how sen­si­tive a topic that’s go­ing to be. We have to think about what grades we’re go­ing to rec­om­mend, what kind of screener, and then what do we do with that in­for­ma­tion when we get it back. That’s a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

JOE BURBANK/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Den­niseya Pugh, 19, a sur­vivor of child­hood trauma, touts the ben­e­fits of men­tal health coun­sel­ing for teens.

JOE BURBANK/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Den­niseya Pugh, 19, a sur­vivor of child­hood trauma, talks with her cri­sis coun­selor from high school, San­dra Nonez-Mera.

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