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Mental Health Draws Debate After Student Suicides

Memorials for the students who perished during the Parkland School shooting.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Two suicides in the span of a week involving student survivors of the Parkland school shooting have sparked a new question at the Florida Capitol: How much mental-health money should the state provide to schools? 

The Senate has proposed setting aside $100 million for schools to offer mental-health services next year, $30 million more than what the House has recommended. House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, said Wednesday he does not foresee any changes to that amount of money soon.

“I think one or two deaths or suicides is one too many, but we are throwing a lot of resources (into mental health),” Cummings told The News Service of Florida.

The services are tied to parts of wide-ranging school safety bills that advanced this week in the House and Senate. But debate about mental-health proposals has largely been overshadowed by controversial provisions that would allow school districts to train and arm teachers.

Mental-health funding came back to the spotlight this week after two reported suicides, including the death of Sydney Aiello, a student who graduated last year from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Her mother told a South Florida television station that Aiello had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt from the mass shooting in February 2018 that killed 17 students and faculty members.

Aiello’s death was followed by the reported suicide of 16-year-old Calvin Desir, a current student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

State law requires school districts to craft plans and spend the vast majority of $69 million provided by the Legislature last year to offer services to students dealing with mental- health issues or substance-abuse problems. However, the legislation did not require districts to spend that money on suicide prevention.

While upcoming budget negotiations may lead to changes in mental-health funding at schools, Cummings said he believes the House’s $69 million recommendation is “responsible.” He also said he does not expect the House to include a spending requirement for suicide prevention.

But House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said one of his priorities during budget negotiations will be to increase mental health funding.

House Democrats say more money is needed to address the mental health issues coming to light in the wake of the Parkland school shooting.

“We don’t have an increase in the mental health allocation for our schools … not only for our Parkland students who are committing suicide, unfortunately, but across the board,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.

The Senate, on the other hand, is recommending increased mental health funding.

Senate President Bill Galvano, the sponsor of the post-Parkland school safety bill that passed last year, told reporters on Wednesday that addressing mental health was at the heart of his proposal.

“I have always been a strong advocate for having services available and having appropriate funding available,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, said.

This year, Galvano said the school-safety bill would give districts better access to the problems at-risk students face and to the mental-health services.

“A lot of what is captured in the bill itself is to create uniformity in accessing and understanding where a problem exists, whether it be a threat to oneself or to others and be able to act on it,” Galvano said.

When a Senate committee this week considered the school safety proposal, with the mental health requirements, students gave emotional testimony about what they believe lawmakers ought to do to address mental health problems. Their recommendation was to put money planned for the controversial school “guardian” program into mental health services at schools.

“An armed teacher will not be able to stop a student from committing suicide, but a teacher armed with suicide prevention support will be able to save so many more lives,” Carly Hutson, a high school senior, told the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee.

Another concern raised about the mental-health provisions in the bills was brought to light by Olivia Babis of the organization Disability Right Florida.

Currently, the House proposal (HB 7093) would require schools to consult with law enforcement when students’ actions pose a threat to school safety. That would include assessing whether a person’s behavior or mental health problem may pose a threat to students or school safety.

“Mental health is being tied to threat assessments. … It is being tied and associated with criminal activity,” Babis said.

Babis argued that could potentially deter students from seeking mental health services out of fear of being targeted as a potential threat to school safety.