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Kids are facing a mental health crisis and schools aren’t able to address it - Florida must fix this now | Editorial

Orlando Sentinel - 12/19/2019

America is preparing to close a deadly decade for public school, with children and teenagers slaughtered on school grounds at the hands of young, disturbed shooters.

Florida, unfortunately, played a lead role in this story. History will record the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting as the third deadliest mass school shooting since Columbine in 1999. Only Virginia Tech (32) and Sandy Hook elementary (26) saw more young people and school administrators murdered ahead of the 17 lives cut short in Parkland in 2018.

We know why our schools have become less safe; too much access to guns and not enough access to mental health services.

These factors contribute to the rising number of threats by young people who intend to harm others or themselves, such as the teenage girl who shot and killed herself inside a gymnasium at Lake Mary High School this March.

But we’re not doing enough quickly enough to discourage another Nikolas Cruz from unleashing a disaster. Or, to prevent kids from harming themselves.

A powerful eight-month investigation published this month by the South Florida Sun Sentinel outlined just how dire the situation is inside our schools when it comes to managing emotionally disturbed kids.

The newspaper unearthed numerous police reports, court records and spoke to more than 50 parents, educators and mental health professionals to help answer a very tough and complicated question: How many other potential killers are simmering in our schools?

Here is the inconvenient truth: A lot more than you think.

A deep dive into public records across 10 major Florida counties, including Seminole and Orange, showed more than 100 threats to murder teachers or students, the Sun Sentinel reported.

These are just the threats we know about. It’s unnerving to imagine how many more go undocumented.

Florida took some action after the Parkland shooting. Legislators poured $70 million dollars toward mental health services for the state’s 67 school districts and required more law enforcement inside schools. In addition, the Department of Education issued an unfunded mandate this summer for districts to provide at least five hours of mental health education a year.

These measures address the part of the iceberg above water, not the part below.

We still lack answers about what communities, mental health providers, law enforcement and schools should do about severely emotionally disturbed kids who pose immediate and imminent threats like Cruz once did.

Remember, Cruz’s mother sought counseling services for him before she died from complications of pneumonia, according to the Sun Sentinel.

Kids who are found to pose immediate harm to themselves or others can be Baker Acted, a 1971 law that allows people who are believed to be mentally ill to be held involuntarily for up to 72 hours at a mental health facility.

In Central Florida, Halifax Health Medical Center, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida and Aspire Health Partners are the main providers equipped to emotionally stabilize children.

But a Baker Act only addresses the immediate crisis, not the long-term care high-risk kids need to get better.

Even if a mental heath professional determines the child or teenager needs further treatment after the evaluation period and all parties consent, what’s the next step?

“There is a hole in that area,” said Keith Raskin, Vice President of Aspire Health Partners.

Several local mental health experts and pediatricians say long-term residential care is severely lacking, meaning kids with severe emotional challenges often cycle back through the system. Some end up being Baker Acted multiple times without any real improvement.

The sad reality is that kids with severe emotional trauma can get better with the right support and resources. Raskin said treatments like, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), have been very successful, but it’s also expensive for treatment centers to administer.

The initial training for staff is $2,000 per person, and that doesn’t include other costs.

Florida’s legislators have underfunded mental health programs far too long. Florida consistently ranks toward the bottom of the country in spending on mental health programs, something the Sentinel documented five years ago.

If we want to move past crisis response to preventative care and treatment for high-risk kids, then legislators need to prioritize this in next year’s budget.

We’ve seen the devastating impact from a lack of vigilance and funding for mental health programs by our state play out inside schools and beyond.

Let’s hope our kids don’t have to see those impacts again in the next decade.

Editorials are the opinion of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board and are written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Opinion Editor Mike Lafferty, Shannon Green, Jay Reddick, David Whitley and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.

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