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Bay Schools Superintendent Talks Homelessness, Mental Health Struggles Of Students

It’s been months since Hurricane Michael struck the Panhandle, carving a swath of damage from the Gulf to the Georgia state line. Recovery is expected to take years, even a decade or more and schools are feeling the pressure. Bay County Superintendent Bill Husfelt recently spoke before the State Board of Education, outlining some of the problems that have cropped up in the wake of the storm.

“We have two huge problems in our area right now," says Husfelt. "It’s housing, and the mental capacity of all of us to deal with what we’re facing.”    

What he and others are facing is a clean up process that will take years, businesses and livelihoods destroyed, and children and families dealing with the trauma and aftermath of Hurricane Michael.

“We had a program trying to get a thousand mentors this year. We were at 600 and we lost 300 of those. Little League—and you’ll ask why is the superintendent of Bay District schools talking about Little League? Those are things parents are upset about and concerned for their children because we don’t have those things right now." 

Husfelt says there’s the disillusionment with the slowness of progress. Debris piles remain high and in some places in the panhandle, it looks as if the storm hit yesterday instead of five months ago. In the aftermath of natural disasters, schools are often called upon to get back up and running first—to try and return some normalcy to families. But Bay County’s schools were closed for nearly two months and most sustained damage from the storm.  Three have closed, and the district has lost more than 4,000 students. It's trying to figure out where 481 have gone.

“There are stories out there that says when you can’t locate kids, bad things can happen so we’re trying to track down all the students we don’t know where they're at," Husfelt says.

More than 70 percent of the apartments in Panama City are uninhabitable. Before the storm, there were 738 homeless students in the district. Now, there are more than 4,800.

“Here’s what I am really concerned about," Husfelt told the education board Tuesday. "[There have been 700] Community of Care referrals to mental health agencies. We’ve had 70 baker acts since we’ve reopened, 35 since Feb. 25 th, 62 since Christmas Break.” 

One of the youngest students to be involuntarily committed under the state's Baker Act was 6-years-old. And Husfelt read from a letter written by the child's teacher. 

“When he escalates he’s completely out of control, emotionally and physically. He made his second threat of self-harm. When the counselor arrived, the life management center was full and not taking patients. The parents were told they could take him to Gulf Coast [Regional Hospital's] emergency room, and if not, to Tallahassee or Pensacola.”

There aren't enough mental health professionals to go around, because there is no housing for them. Such situations are occurring across the district. Teachers are on the front lines, and while they’re dealing with the trauma of students, they’re working through their own problems—lack of housing, fights with insurance companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA…Husfelt says one of his staff has had to move seven times since the storm. But, he notes, kids are resilient, and he shared with state education board members a story about an interaction U.S. Secretary of Education Besty DeVos had with a child during her visit to a Bay County elementary school.

“She asked, ‘what do you think about the Hurricane’?' And one little boy raised his hand and said, ‘I’m glad about the Hurricane,’ and I said, ‘why?” And he said, ‘because I made a bunch of new friends’.”

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.