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Florida Schools’ Mental Health Crisis Won’t be Solved with Hope or Gimmicks.

Richard Corcoran held a press conference on 10/11/17 announcing new legislation providing vouchers to the “private school of their choice” to public school victims of bullying. The legislation (HB1), which is reported to be a House legislative priority this session, was filed yesterday by Representative Byron Donalds. The vouchers will be referred to as “Hope Scholarships.”

“Children who are subjected to violence and abuse at school deserve hope, dignity and a real opportunity to succeed,” Corcoran said. “No child should ever be afraid to go to school, and no child should have to continually suffer abuse. They deserve a way out.”

HB1 provides private school vouchers, on a first come, first served basis, to any student (k-12) who has “been subjected to an incident of battery; harassment; hazing; bullying; kidnapping; physical attack; robbery; sexual offenses, harassment, assault, or battery; threat or intimidation; fighting at school.” One has to wonder if both students caught fighting can apply for the voucher or if the one “who started it” would be exempt? The revenue source for this voucher program is strange (perhaps they would call it “innovative”): it appears the voucher program will be paid for through $20 tax credits when individuals register their automobiles. Hmmm, we weren’t expecting that…

Are tax dollars best spent paying victims to leave their publicly funded schools? Does removing the victim of bullying, or other offenses, make our schools safer? What happens to the children left behind at the original school? Is this a genuine attempt to help young victims or is it a thinly veiled attempt to expand Florida’s vouchers to private schools, while labeling public schools as “dangerous”?

And the funding source… what is up with that?

October 25, 2017 was declared Unity Day by the National Bullying Center, a day devoted to showing that “we are together against bullying and united for kindness, acceptance and inclusion,” so it was appropriate that legislators were discussing bullying and bullying prevention in our schools.

In the House PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee, Chair Chris Latvala’s opening remarks made it clear the purpose of the meeting was to understand school violence reporting requirements, how schools respond to reported incidents and the impact of school violence on student achievement “in anticipation of the Hope Scholarship bill coming before” the committee. The Innovation workshop was paving the way for the Hope Scholarship bill which is now the sole subject of their scheduled November 8th meeting.

Jacob Oliva, Executive Vice Chancellor from the FLDOE, and Dr. Shamarial Roberson, Florida Department of Health, were the scheduled presenters. (You can hear their presentations here and see their documentation here.) To summarize:

  • Schools are under state and federal mandates to report incidents of crimes or serious behavior incidents, including bullying.
  • Every school is required to have a policy addressing bullying and harassment (F.S. 1006.147). Policies must include a procedure for reporting and investigating incidents. Whether the investigation confirms bullying or not, counseling is provided to ALL students involved. If the claim is substantiated, the incident is addressed and steps are taken to prevent further victimization (such as schedule changes, switching the victim to another class or school, additional supports). Unsubstantiated incidents are addressed as deemed appropriate by the investigators, the behaviors are addressed and appropriate consequences are assigned.
  • Anti-bullying policies are integrated into the school curriculum and every district has a Bullying Prevention Contact who is responsible for training staff, addressing parental concerns, updating policies and supporting positive climates throughout the school district.
  • Since 2002, Florida schools are required to adopt a “Zero Tolerance” policy for crime and victimization (F.S. 1006.13) which limits contact between offenders and victims of offenses: offenders may not attend the school or ride on the school bus with their victim or their victim’s siblings. If necessary, offenders can be transferred to a school in a neighboring district.
  • Throughout Florida, substantiated bullying claims have been steadily declining since 2010, when federally mandated reporting began. The incidence of self reported bullying on anonymous surveys is significantly higher than the substantiated claims reported. In 2015, 123,500 high school students reported being bullied in the past 12 months yet only 2,867 bullying incidents were substantiated and reported.
  • The state does not collect bullying data by student category but Dr. Roberson suggested that children with disabilities might be more at risk. Mr. Oliva felt bullying occurred most frequently in middle school but “every student is at risk of being a victim of bullying or harassment.”
  • Since 1983, Florida has had intermittent Safe Schools Funding appropriations. Until recently, the $64+ million assigned for Safe School funding was, by statute, to be used for a variety of programs including bullying prevention and intervention, suicide prevention, alternative school for adjudicated youth, anger and aggression management strategies, conflict resolution strategies and school resource officers (SROs). Last session, HB7069 removed the list of suggested uses and gave priority to establishing a school resource officer program. Historically, districts have used the bulk of the Safe Schools funding to support SRO programs.
  • Youth safety and violence can have significant effects on academic achievement and long term mental health. Addressing these issues require educators, health agencies, parents, and communities working together to ensure that students are safe, healthy, and ready to learn in school.

Across the aisle, in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on PreK-12 Education, new Chair Kathleen Passidomo had invited a panel of superintendent and district representatives for a conversation addressing the rise of mental health and substance abuse problems in our schools and communities. She specifically asked for suggestions and recommendations regarding what the state could do to address mental health and substance abuse issues. Senator Passidomo has made it clear that one of her main concerns this session will be addressing concerns regarding substance abuse and mental health issues in our schools and communities.

The invited panel included superintendents and other representatives from Orange, Seminole, St. Johns, Broward, Collier, Hendry and Polk Counties. Their concerns are summarized here:

  • Florida Schools are seeing an escalation of both number and severity of mental health issues. Suicide rates are up.
  • There has a been a rise of Baker Acts (the involuntary institutionalization and examination of an individual) across the state, even in elementary schools.
  • There are increasing numbers of referrals to local mental health agencies, who are “over taxed and overworked.”
  • Schools are understaffed when it comes to intervention professionals (school psychologists, social workers, family counselors and school nurses).
  • Often students’ mental health needs go unidentified and under-treated.
  • Teachers and school staff need to be trained in trauma informed care. Such trainings cost money and take time.
  • Schools need resources earmarked for suicide prevention training and crisis intervention initiatives.

Each district representative repeated essentially the same thing: they need more intervention professionals: school psychologists, social workers and family counselors.

Broward Superintendent, Robert Runcie said “I think we’re at the point in public education where we need to recognize that dealing with mental health social-emotional concerns that our children have… are just as important as curriculum itself,  because if that’s not addressed no real learning is going to occur in our schools.”

Senator Montford, a former superintendent and current CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS), confirmed that mental health is the “number one concern” of superintendents. Districts need additional counselors and social works. He cautioned, however, against unfunded mandates.

Senator Farmer presented some staggering statistics:

  • 38% of students reported that they were sad and hopeless.
  • 16% had put together a plan on how to kill themselves.
  • Florida ranks 49th out of 50 states for funding for mental health issues.

Senator Farmer expressed concerns that “there’s no safe zone anymore because cyber bullying can occur around the clock. He concluded “these kids need help, it’s our job to do it.”

The difference between these House and the Senate committee approaches to mental health issues on “Unity Day” could not be more distinct.

Senator Passidomo’s committee has identified a mental health crisis in our schools and is well on the way to understanding and addressing the issues. Clearly, schools need more mental health professionals and intervention programs.

The House seems focused on taking advantage of this mental health crisis to expand vouchers to private schools. Anti-bullying policies and procedures are already in place. Statute allows ample options for victims and/or bullies to be moved to another class or school. Florida Virtual School remains an alternative for children who need it. Private schools participating in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship voucher are exempt from state and federal reporting mandates. There is no evidence private voucher schools are “bully free” or that public schools are “dangerous.” Finally, why are we paying for private school vouchers with automobile registration funds?

Florida students are suffering from a state wide mental health crisis. How should our scarce tax dollars be spent? Addressing the problem for ALL children or offering escape to a few?

We hope legislators in Tallahassee will see beyond the latest “Hope” gimmick offered by House leadership and recognize that real crises need real solutions. Mental health issues are rarely solved by running away. These kids need help and it is our legislators’ job to do it.

 

 

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