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Volusia, Flagler school days get more crowded with new mental health training

News-Journal - 1/12/2020

Now that the second half of the school year has kicked off, Volusia County's older students can add something else to their to-do list in between regular classes, school assemblies, emergency drills, extracurricular activities, tutoring and test prep: monthly lessons on mental health.

The State Board of Education approved in July a new requirement that sixth- through 12th-grade students get five hours of mental health awareness and assistance training each year. The newest lessons join an ever-growing list of mandates from Tallahassee that educators must squeeze into the school day.

"Five hours is a long time," pointed out Volusia School Board member and retired teacher Linda Cuthbert. "That's more than a week of curriculum in a certain class."

[READ MORE: Volusia students slow to access expanded mental health services]

To meet the new requirements in Volusia, the district office will provide lessons to schools each month via PowerPoint presentations with voice-overs and videos, plus one-page informational handouts. Teachers will facilitate one of three optional discussion questions, and students will complete a monthly sign-in sheet to show they finished the lesson.

Principals will coordinate with teachers to pick a date that works for each school, and will be required to return the sign-in sheets to the district office by the end of the month.

In Flagler County, schools will roll out 10 30-minute lessons between January and March, with the subject matter varying based on the grade.

The new initiative, approved at the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis, expands on requirements that legislators approved following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The massacre prompted some calls for educators and lawmakers to put their focus on mental health services, rather than adding armed staff at schools.

[READ MORE: Florida grand jury slams 'systemic' school safety issues]

Adding more security personnel at school sites has posed its own challenges. Some districts aren't complying as fully as state officials would like as they contend with high costs and a shortage of law enforcement officers. But adding more mental health training poses its own challenges for school districts.

Time-strapped educators must figure out where the new training fits into schedules that include not only academic instruction, but also mandatory drills for lockdowns, evacuations and fires, school-based assemblies and other topical coverage required by state statutes.

"The training I think is very necessary, especially for children to be made aware of what's happening in the environment and their culture, but it takes time away," Cuthbert said. "I think what troubles all educators is the fact that so much of what they ask us to do, we do not have any input with it."

[READ MORE: Armed and ready -- but will Volusia and Flagler schools be safer?]

Thanks to pre-existing requirements for mental health education in the post-Parkland school safety legislation, Volusia already completed one hour of mental health training in September. Volusia started implementing the Say Something curriculum, which teaches students warning signs and how to notify an adult if they're worried about anything.

The newly required instruction must include awareness of signs, symptoms and prevention of mental health disorders, information about how to access treatment or resources, and instruction in what to do or say to peers struggling with mental health disorders, and specific instruction on suicide and alcohol and drug abuse prevention.

"We are going to reinvent school-based mental health awareness in Florida," said Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in a press release in July. "We will be the No. 1 state in the nation in terms of mental health outreach and school safety."

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