Central Florida schools receive millions to increase mental health assistance to students

Districts use money to hire more mental health professionals to visit students

By Adrianna Iwasinski - Investigative Reporter

ORLANDO, Fla. - The 2018 arrests of accused school shooters Nikolas Cruz in Parkland and Sky Bouche in Marion County exposed a nerve many school districts have been dealing with for years.

The problem is how to get help for troubled teens before they resort to violence and how to do it with the limited amount of funds allotted to schools.

After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida lawmakers earmarked nearly $70 million more toward mental health funding for Florida public schools. The amount each school received depended on the size of the district, with the largest districts receiving the lion's share of the money.

[WEB EXTRA: See what your Central Florida school district's mental health plan is]

Each school district, however, was guaranteed at least $100,000. Many districts used their allotted portion to increase mental health training for their staff and mental health screening for their students, and to hire more mental health professionals for their schools.

Here is a breakdown of how much each Central Florida school district received in mental health funding as a result of SB 7026, better known as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. 

  • Brevard County: $1.7 million
  • Flagler County: $386,000
  • Lake County: $1 million
  • Marion County: $1 million
  • Polk County: $2.4 million
  • Orange County: $4.7 million
  • Osceola County: $1.6 million
  • Seminole County: $1.6 million
  • Sumter County: $287,000
  • Volusia County: $1.4 million

For a breakdown of how much each district across the state received, click here.

How are some Central Florida school districts using the funds?

Orange County Public Schools, the fourth-largest district in the state, received $4.7 million to split between its 191 schools.

Officials with the district say they added 46 more mental health professionals at the beginning of the year, and it significantly improved their ability to provide mental health assistance inside the schools to:

  • Serve more students who may be uninsured or underinsured.
  • Educate parents and students about the signs and symptoms of mental illness. 
  • Expand community partnerships and create more robust systems that allow for immediate intervention and follow-up if a student is in crisis.

"The awareness is so much better," OCPS student services coordinator Mary Bridges said. "I feel like it's getting results. We definitely see the change in culture at the schools. We see that any time a student is in crisis or in distress, they are being attended to."

District officials say each school already had an assigned social worker and school psychologist, but the new funding allowed them to hire more mental health counselors, psychologists and social workers to visit district schools and provide additional mental health services for students on campus. Here is how it breaks down:

  • Psychologists, serving two to three schools each: At each school at least one or two full days a week.
  • Social workers, serving four to five schools each: At each school at least one full day a week
  • District mental health counselors, serving 7 to 8 schools each: At each school at least one full day every two weeks.

Bridges said that even before the added funding, each school in her district had a mental health designee. Those designees are also trained on how to identify students who may be at risk of mental health issues, and what district and community resources are available. In the elementary schools, it is the elementary school counselor and in the middle and high schools, it is a SAFE coordinator.

The district also uses Children's Home Society, a nonprofit agency that provides mental health services to students in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties. The district says CHS also support the Community Partnership Schools at Evans High School and OCPS Academic Center for Excellence with wraparound services.

Seminole County Public Schools was awarded $1.6 million for school safety and mental health. As a result, the district hired 13 district mental health counselors who travel to different schools during the week. 

Krissy Moses is one of them. 

She says she's helped counsel around 100 students since coming on board and says early intervention is crucial.

"The sooner we can get help to a student in need, the quicker they get better," Moses said. "But it takes someone to recognize something is going on." 

Moses does not stay at the district office either. 

She travels to three different schools during the week and has a designated presence at each school she serves. She visits Lyman High School every Tuesday and Wednesday, Milwee Middle School on Mondays and Thursdays and Altamonte Elementary School on Fridays.

"I think we are helping a lot of students the way it is set up," Moses said. "I think it is a great start."

Moses says while splitting time between three different campuses is not ideal, it is better than having no presence at all.

"I think it would be ideal at one campus full time, absolutely," Moses said.

Moses said that before, she worked for Aspire Health Partners as a counselor, and would visit schools on an as-needed basis. 

Now that she is a full-time member of the Seminole County Public School mental health team, she can meet with students one-on-one inside the school. 

That means a student can meet with her, or one of the other 13 district mental health counselors, for about an hour once a week. 

A district counselor can also refer a student for outside care, if needed.

"For a student to be able to share what's going on, and for me to just be there for them - to hold a safe space - is just so important," Moses said.

So how do students in need know how to find her?

Moses said a social worker or guidance counselor at the school usually refers her once a teacher or parent identifies a student in need of mental health assistance.

"We're working on coming up with a PSA that schools can share on morning announcements about our mental health services, and who their counselor is at that school," said Ashley Sanders, program specialist of mental health services for Seminole County Public Schools. 

Sanders said that since the district increased the number of mental health counselors, it is seeing results, with more students being identified as needing help -- and then getting it.

"Students are reporting that they're feeling better, that they're having less issues at school, things are going better at home," Sanders said. 

Sanders says the district also has a total of 33 school psychologists, 27 school social workers and 130 certified school counselors on staff to help students at all 63 Seminole County Public Schools with any mental health assistance they may need.

"Our schools are having a lot of positive reports," Sanders said. "When I talk to the school counselors, they are saying, 'Wow, this is something we've needed for a long time. I'm so glad to have this extra support here.'"

 

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