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Florida Officials Eye Safety, Mental Health Ahead Of School Year

Empty classroom with chalkboard on wall
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

With the start of a new school year just around the corner, Florida officials are eyeing policy changes that would expand the number of mental health professionals in schools and ensure that charter schools are meeting safety requirements. 

Addressing mental health issues and hardening schools have been two high-profile education issues in the wake of last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

The issues were included in sweeping legislation aimed at making schools safer and improve student access to mental health services following the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting, which left 17 students and faculty dead.

But many schools have struggled to comply with some of the measures included in the law, and state and local education officials have expressed concern about a shrinking pool of mental health professionals in the state.

With that in mind, Florida Department of Education officials have proposed policy changes to address those two issues.

One of the proposals would revise the language in contracts the state has with charter schools to include a line that says they must comply with “all applicable provisions of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act.” The language would emphasize what is already mandated in state law, and potentially give state education officials authority to penalize charter schools that violate the policy.

"It's appalling that anybody would not be in compliance with the law by now and that the Department of Education has to put it in writing in their contract with charter schools," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, told The News Service of Florida Thursday.

The proposal comes about a month after Gualtieri's commission learned that nearly 200 schools --- including many charter schools --- did not have armed security guards, as required by state law.

“Those charter students are human beings, and they are funded through the school board,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a member of the commission, said at the panel’s June meeting. “Why in the world do they have the latitude and the luxury not to comply with the law?”

Judd has recommended publicly identifying the non-compliant schools, in an effort to force them to follow the state law.

Adding more teeth to charter schools’ contracts is another way to keep them accountable, Judd suggested.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t hurt to put it in the contract language. It is another way to ensure they comply with state law,” Judd said in an interview Thursday.

Judd said he has been told the state is conducting another survey of all of Florida’s 67 school districts. The survey will provide an updated list of schools that have yet to comply with safety measures included in the 2018 law. According to Judd, the results are expected to be shared with the commission at a meeting next week.

While the results of the survey are not yet available, the Department of Education’s website includes a list of the school districts participating in a controversial school “guardian” program that authorizes specially trained school staff to bring guns to classrooms.

Lawmakers this year tweaked the program to allow classroom teachers to participate in the program.

Currently, 36 school districts are participating in the guardian program, according to the state agency website.

But it remains unclear how many of those districts are allowing classroom teachers to volunteer for the program, because state officials only recently began tracking that information.

State education leaders also want to make policy changes aimed at boosting the pool of mental health professionals that can work in schools.

The Florida Board of Education later this month will consider a new rule that would create additional pathways to ensure that “highly qualified counselors” --- including clinical counselors --- are able to help students who are struggling with mental health issues, Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said in an email.

Under the proposed rule, the state would offer three options for professionals to become school counselors. All of the options would require a master's degree or higher, but only two of the three options would require counselors to fulfill a 600-hour supervised internship serving school-aged students.

Judd applauded the move to expand access to mental health treatment for students.

“You don’t know who is making irrational statements because they are preparing to be a mass shooter from the other who is making the irrational statements just to get attention. That’s why we need the mental health counselors,” Judd said.

As Florida grapples with a mental-health crisis, officials are taking steps to bring aid to some of the state's neediest areas, including the hurricane-ravaged Panhandle.

First Lady Casey DeSantis on Thursday announced that all public schools in five of the hurricane-impacted counties in Northwest Florida will have telehealth portals installed in time for the start of the new school year next week.

The portals are expected to connect about 35,000 students in the area with counselors who are working remotely.

“This is an advantage, whether you are a rural county or you live in a big city. Our problem is there are not enough professionals to deal with all our needs right now,” Bay County School District Superintendent Bill Husfelt told reporters following a press conference with the First Lady on Thursday.