Sen. Bill Nelson is filing a bill to get more mental health professionals for students in elementary, middle and high schools across the country.
Nelson's plan focuses on placing psychologists, school counselors and social workers into areas where they are needed most.
He’s been working on the legislation since the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland and last week’s shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas underscored the need, Nelson said.
“We can’t allow what happened in Parkland and in Texas to become the new normal in this country,” Nelson said from the Senate floor. “We have to do more to protect our kids in school and ensure that any student who needs mental health services is able to get those services.”
The legislation would require a study to determine which schools do not have enough mental health providers.
The bill would make federal grants available to universities that partner with low-income school districts to train mental health professionals. It would also create a student loan forgiveness program for counselors who spend at least five years working in districts where they are most needed.
“We must hire more school counselors, social workers and other mental health professionals to get ahead of the problem and ensure any student who needs help is able to get it,” Nelson said.
In Florida, there is an average of one school psychologist for every 1,983 students, according to a study from the Florida Association of School Psychologists. The national recommended ration is between 500 and 700 students per psychologist, Nelson said.
“That means Florida only has about one-fourth of the number of school psychologists it needs to properly care for its students,” he said.
State legislators approved $69 million to expand mental health services in Florida’s public schools following the Parkland shooting. The funding was part of the school safety bill that also provided money to put more armed guards in schools.
Florida lawmakers passed the bill along with gun reforms that, among other things, raised the age to buy a gun in the state to 21.
Nelson acknowledged that gun reform legislation has not found similar success in Congress.
“Surely, we ought to be able to come together in a bipartisan way to do something about mental health,” he said.