Parkland shooting legacy: Palm Beach County students get more counselors, psychologists

Parkland shooting legacy: Palm Beach County students get more counselors, psychologists

The grown-up support for students in the throes of crisis — or even those having just a really bad day — in Palm Beach County public schools is undergoing a change unlike any in the district’s history.

The district has contracted for an additional 60 mental health counselors to be stationed among every high school and its most demanding middle and elementary schools. It has established two mental health teams to mobilize when students have troubles so complicated or serious that the counselors at a given school need backup.

By the beginning of next school year, the number of school psychologists will have grown from 120 to 160. Additionally, every middle school will have three guidance counselors regardless of the number of students on campus. And both guidance counselors and psychologists will get more paid work days before the school year starts to get their paperwork out of the way so they have more time for students.

Eventually, all school staff will be trained on how to spot a student in trouble and conduct a bit of verbal triage to open the door to help.

For as long as Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald can remember, he has longed to hire more guidance counselors, give them more time to actually engage with kids and put additional mental health experts on campuses as well.

Few experts would dispute the need.

As many as one in five students in the United States experiences a mental disorder each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 20 percent of students diagnosed with mental disorders receive mental-health services, the National Association of School Psychologists reports. Students also face the menace of bullying, homelessness and the pervasiveness of sometimes toxic social media.

Alarm bells have been ringing for years, but authorities acknowledge one uncomfortable truth: Only after Nikolas Cruz stormed a Broward County high school a year ago and killed 17 people was the political will mustered to make those changes happen.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act that followed the shooting demanded more cops and better physical security. But the Florida law also took aim at students’ emotional well-being, asking each district to figure out how to better serve students.

State lawmakers put $69 million to the mental health part of the equation, $4 million of which went to the Palm Beach County School District. That alone, however, wasn’t enough to make significant change in a district of 180 schools and 196,000 students, administrators agreed.

They turned to voters to approve higher property taxes to chip in another $22 million (other money from the tax will pay for more police officers and teacher raises).
“When you look at what happened to Nik and what challenges he faced, throughout his schooling life, there were lots of opportunities and needs for additional support that could’ve been provided,” Oswald said.

“This is not a Broward County issue or Palm Beach County issue, this is a Florida issue when there are just not enough services around,” Oswald said. “It’s no surprise to all of us: There are a lot of mental health issues and not enough supports. We talk a lot about it, but now we can have action.”

For years, the district tapped grants and various alliances to place mental health counselors in schools where experience said there was the most need.

Sometimes, the fit was good and a school gained a valuable resource.

Others times plans failed, such as when the district signed off on an agreement with a Miami-based company that promised to deliver counselors to 39 middle schools and seven alternative schools for free. The company, Motivational Coaches of America or MC USA, paid for counselors by billing insurers. But the model left students in the lurch when counselors complained they weren’t getting paid and rampant turnover ensued, a Palm Beach Post investigation revealed.

The district severed ties with MC USA, as did other districts, and the business has since shuttered.

Agencies supply counselors

This time, the district will be paying to ensure 60 counselors are positioned to help. Rather than hire them directly, it has contracted with seven agencies that have reliably supplied counselors in the past.

Forest Hill High School Principal Mary Stratos has given her new mental health counselor a discrete office where students can come and go without drawing attention. Some stop in on their own; others are referred there by an administrator or visit as an alternative to suspension.

“She’s pretty much engaged all the time with kids,” Stratos said. “It’s been a good thing.”

Since the counselors began arriving in schools in the late fall, more than 1,450 students have been referred to them, district officials report. The goal is for each to have a caseload of about 20 students at any given time.

Rachel Begovic is a counselor for the South Area Intensive School and supervises counselors at six other schools.

“I’ve had a lot of students admit to things they haven’t told other people — trauma, sexual trauma, suicide ideations,” Begovic said. “I have a lot of students who struggle with anger. For me, usually, anger is an emotion covering up something else. Beside working on anger management, I want to know what’s underneath. What’s making them angry? Is there trauma or grief or depression?”

To work through this, Begovic may meet with a student six to 10 times. The student sets goals and makes a plan to accomplish them. If they need more help, Begovic can refer them to the right place.

To back up these in-house counselors, the district has assembled two seven-member mobile mental health teams, called CAPE — Crisis Assessment Prevention Education — support teams.
Typically the CAPE team will send a pair of experts to a school at a moment’s notice — something they’ve already done more than 200 times since their inception a couple of months ago.
“Schools have counselors, may have a psychologist or therapist, they have staff that can really help a student work through stuff, but there may be times where a student is in crisis and the school says this is a concern for us. ‘We’re not seeing a de-escalation, we continue to have reports of concern about harm to self or others.’ That’s when they might choose to pick up the phone and call the team,” said Michael Kane, who oversees the teams from the district’s office for safe schools.

The teams have people with expertise in different areas of mental health and social work who can work with the staff, student and family to get the child the help he or she needs, Kane said.
For generations, the most common counselors on campus have been so-called guidance counselors, or “school counselors.”

When Palm Beach County authorities scrutinized these counselors’ vital role in school safety via a grand jury report, one familiar criticism rang out: “Over time, the guidance counselor began to be more career and graduation focused, for example graduation requirements, college choices and college applications. This shift in focus left students with other needs floundering.”

The sweeping changes coming to the district tackled this criticism.

Middle schools will be guaranteed three guidance counselors starting next fall.

In her former job as principal at Conniston Middle, Stratos recalled her enrollment qualifying the school for only two counselors, so she tapped her federal Title 1 money so she could have one for each grade. But schools with a more affluent population didn’t have that option. Middle schools no longer need worry.

Meanwhile, each high school will have a testing coordinator — a job that often fell to a guidance counselor or other administrator, taking away from time with students.

Middle and high school guidance counselors also will begin the school year five days earlier next school year, with the goal of sorting through scheduling duties before students return. In a similar vein, the district is hiring more school psychologists. Tasked with evaluating and testing students, they, too, will get additional paid days to wade through more of those duties without cutting into time with students, Oswald said.

Spotting trouble early

Ten school staffers, a principal and a middle school coach among them, sit in a training room, pretending to counsel a distraught teen. Their approach is guided by trainer Rick Lewis. He’s making sure when they jump in to help this kid, they do it in a way that won’t shut the student down, put him on the defensive and will leave the door open if he wants to find help.
This is Youth Mental Health First Aid, and it’s one of the most broad reaching initiatives in student mental health — the point of first contact.
They aren’t here to diagnose, or fix the problem, just to recognize the warning signs for mental health problems, understand the risk factors and connect a student with help.
The training began in 2016 with a grant. Since then 1,900 school district employees, including all school police officers and school nurses, have taken the eight-hour course. Now the district is aiming to train thousands more under the mental health expansion.

So far, 183 of the district’s schools have at least one person on campus trained in the first aid.

“A lot of time the students will say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ or ‘I got it,’ and we teach them (to say), ‘Remember if things get worse or better, nobody has to go through things by themselves,’” Lewis said.

What’s important about all of these efforts in Palm Beach County schools is that a student doesn’t have to go beyond the campus to get help, and it is free to the student and family, said John Fowler, president and CEO of the Drug Abuse Treatment Association Inc. which is supplying 14 of the new counselors to the district.

In counseling, one of the biggest obstacles to success is transportation — or lack of it, Fowler said. Creating these opportunities on campus will help.

“Absolutely, it’s going to make a difference,” Fowler said.

The next step, says Fowler: What do we do with kids in the summer.

Source: Palm Beach Post 

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