Senate panel backs school mental health initiative

By Lloyd Dunkelberger, The News Service of Florida
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Shortly before a mass shooting at a Broward County high school, a Senate committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill that could dedicate more funding to Florida schools for mental health services.

The bill (SB 1434) would create a special category for mental health in the annual funding formula for Florida’s 67 school districts. The Senate has already approved an $87.3 billion budget for 2018-19 that includes $40 million for school mental health services.

Since she took over the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Pre-K-12 Education, Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican, has made mental health issues one of her top priorities in the education budget.

Passidomo’s closing argument on her bill became tragically prophetic when the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland began roughly a half-hour after her committee adjourned.

“When you think about it, the people who commit those atrocious acts that are in the paper every day were not born that way. Something happened to them likely when they were young,” Passidomo said.

Under the bill, prior to receiving the money, the school districts, as well as charter schools, would develop mental health plans that would be submitted for review to the state.

 “We have the opportunity to capture them early on to identify those students that have issues and get them into treatment so that they don’t become the monsters that do these atrocious attacks,” she said.

The mental health plans will have to include a partnership with at least one community program or agency to provide “prevention, diagnosis and treatment services for students.” The services would be aimed at reducing social, emotional or behavioral problems in at-risk students and could deal with issues such as bullying, trauma and violence.

Once the programs are in place, school districts would be required to submit an annual report to the state Department of Education on the effectiveness of the plans, beginning next year.

“It should be a program that everybody can look to, so that the students who are in the classrooms can be taught,” Passidomo said. “And the students who have some problems can get the help they need and they can get back to the classroom.”

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who heads the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said school leaders fully support the mental health initiative.

“The number one concern for school superintendents in Florida for the last three years has been mental health,” Montford said. “If you stop and think about it, no matter what problems we face in society, they all show up in the public schools.”

Montford said creating what is known as a “categorical,” which will restrict the use of the money to mental health services, in the school-funding formula is important because dealing with the mental health challenges will be an ongoing effort by the state and the school districts.

“What better way for us to address it than to make sure it is funded every year,” Montford said. “This is critically important and it deserves to be a categorical.”

In the context of a statewide school system that has nearly 3 million students and an overall budget of more than $21 billion, Montford and Passidomo described the $40 million initiative as a start.

“It’s a good beginning,” Montford said. “This will allow us to start those programs and find out which ones are really working.”

The mental health provision is just one element in the Senate bill that includes a host of education policies, including revisions to the “schools of hope” program, which is a priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.

The House has already passed a major education bill (HB 7055), which includes a voucher-like program that would let bullied students transfer to private schools.

Passidomo said all of those measures will be part of the end-of-session negotiations between the Senate and House over the next three weeks.

The mental health initiative is also part of the Senate budget and implementing legislation. Even if the Senate proposal approved Wednesday does not pass, the $40 million proposal could still be enacted on a one-year basis through the new state budget.

News Service of Florida