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School Threats and Violence are Exacerbated By A Lack of Mental Health Resources

BSO arrested a third teen in a matter of days for making threats to a school.
Nicole L. Cvetnic
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Despair, rage, and calls for help are coming from teenagers in Florida. Some are emotionally disturbed while others are obsessed with death or holding grudges. Even more disturbing—many of these young people have easy access to guns. 

Finding the coordinated care needed to address these mental health issues is often difficult. Lack of access to health insurance is partly to blame. So is the stigma around mental health issues.

This week, the South Florida Sun Sentinel published an investigation into violent threats leveled by school kids. It detailed the frequency of threats made by children. Sun-Sentinel Reporter Megan O’Matz, State Rep. Shevrin Jones (D-Hollywood), Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood and School Psychologist Donna Berghauser joined the Florida Roundup to discuss these critical issues, possible solutions and the public money allocated for mental health solutions.

This transcript was lightly edited for clarity:

The Florida Roundup: Megan, you pored over court cases in 10 different Florida counties to see just how big of a threat violent kids might be in the state's schools. What did you find?

MEGAN O’MATZ: Well, these records point to a real mental health crisis with children in Florida and around the country. We were really surprised and shocked to see how common these threats are and the depth of despair and anger with children.

We basically found that these children are everywhere—highly disturbed children are in our schools. And we think that parents and school district employees, everyone should understand the depth of this problem.

The Florida Roundup: A real array of disturbing cases across the state in all types of schools, all grade levels. You were mentioning your colleague a minute ago.

MEGAN O’MATZ: We kept talking to each other when we would look at these records and say, ‘oh, my God, look at this case. Look at this case. Look at what this child is saying. and threatening and posting online and texting and showing pictures of themselves with guns and begging for help, saying, you know, I wake up thinking that I want to kill someone.’ And some of these children are reaching out for help on Reddit, on social media, saying, how did I get rid of these thoughts, these urges? And we were just very, very stunned by what we were reading and seeing in these records.

The Florida Roundup: The despair, the rage so many teens are expressing is alarming. And it's prompting calls for a real campaign in this state to meaningfully address kids, mental and behavioral health issues. Let's talk about that, because as you mentioned, the access to care, kids getting mental health assistance is a huge public health problem in Florida.

MEGAN O’MATZ: It is very difficult for parents to access care, and we put a lot of burden on the school districts to help these children, and they don't have the resources, they don't have enough mental health staff and psychologists and psychiatrists for these children that have so many problems.

We're finding that parents themselves are very frustrated. They don't know or can't afford access. They don't have the insurance. A lot of psychiatrists won't even take insurance anymore. The children we saw have very deep problems and you really need a lot of coordinated care to help these children. And it's hard to get. It's hard for parents to access that.

The Florida Roundup: Mike Chitwood is the sheriff in Volusia County. Let me ask you, have you used red flag laws with school kids in Volusia County?

SHERIFF MIKE CHITWOOD: We have used it with at least one person this year.  

The Florida Roundup: Can you tell me about that case?  

SHERIFF MIKE CHITWOOD: Yes. We had a young man who threatened to shoot up the school. ... We went to his home. His mother informed us that he had access to firearms and there were firearms present in the house. And with that, we then were able to get a court order to seize those weapons. And the case is still winding its way through the court system right now.

The Florida Roundup: What was the nature of the threat? How was the threat leveled?

SHERIFF MIKE CHITWOOD: It just came back to me. The threat was leveled in a computer chat room, a game chat room where he was chastised by other people in the chat room who then notified the FBI of his [intent] to bring his father's long gun to school and shoot up the campus.

The Florida Roundup: Donna Berghauser is a licensed school psychologist. When you hear the sheriff's story there in Fallujah County about that one particular threat that the sheriff's office has gone to court to use the red flag law, what occurs to you about that story, Donna?

DONNA BERGHAUSER:  My reflections are this is likely a very extreme scenario and thankfully a very rare case. But, you know, thankfully, there are systems in place where people in the chat room have avenues to report, especially the importance behind that... Eighty-one percent of the cases people knew about them happening before. So, informing the community and the importance of being aware or seeing something and saying something certainly comes to mind first.

The Florida Roundup: In the Sun Sentinel investigation that was published this week of 10 counties, their data found a sharp increase, Donna, in the number of students making school threats or threats against their school. Why do you think that is? Is it is it more sensitivity post-Parkland that these threats are being captured now or is there an increase in these kinds of threats, in your estimation?

DONNA BERGHAUSER: I think that there is a level of comfort as well as at the level of awareness, but on the flipside, I will say that sometimes the amount of information and the sensationalism of some of these news media stories can actually desensitize people.

But nonetheless, in terms of the occurences, I think that at times you didn't always have the proper language or they don't understand the severity and the seriousness of the threats that they are making or the actions that they're taking. And so sometimes to put it in a counter-perspective, we might encounter students at school who are very frustrated or upset who are in extremely frustrating situations. And they might use terminology like, oh, I want to kill myself, I just want to die. But when you speak to the students and you find out the root of the problem, you realize that they don't have true suicidal ideation. It's just that they didn't have a better way of expressing that. And I can see that sometimes, you know, things may come out in a very aggressive manner in that circumstance with students. But also, there are some of those who will make those statements without really any true intention, but not thinking through the ramifications of making such threats.

The Florida Roundup: Sheriff Chitwood, I'd like to hear your thoughts on that. And in addition, what we read this week from a state grand jury that really took to task a number of larger school districts about some of the crime data that those school districts have been reporting to law enforcement.

SHERIFF MIKE CHITWOOD: I agree very much with what was just said about some kids may not have the right or do not have the right equipment to express themselves. So they blurt out whatever. My problem is, I don't have a crystal ball. So if you stand up and tell the teacher I'm bringing my gun, tomorrow to shoot you in the head, I can't take that risk after doing an investigation.

It's best for us to charge and then allow the social service and the court systems to come together and figure out what column that person falls into. Is it a teen court case? Is it a criminal case or is it a mental health case? But either way, once that list comes out and I'm reading through my stats here, in 2018, we made 133 arrests and so far in 2019, we’ve made 66.

And the major charge that we've filed is a threat to discharge a destructive device 790.162 in the Florida Statute, we really use the most because it is a bomb or a gun that they threaten those social media or verbally.

The Florida Roundup: Sheriff Chitwood, let me ask you, how is that getting reported by the school districts? Because this is a second interim report from this state grand jury that was released this week, really took to tasks a number of school districts for the grand jury's estimation, manipulating crime-reporting data.

SHERIFF MIKE CHITWOOD: I have no doubt that that's being done in different districts in the state of Florida. I mean, I know I can't tell you how they reported it. I can tell you we report it. We're reporting it as a felony. A juvenile is charged with a felony under that statute. I don't know how or how Volusia County schools compare with us, but I know there is a push on and I think it’s a matter of time before there are no law enforcement officers in schools.

It's going to be all guardians in school. School guardians are what you want to see statewide. And when that happens, the school guardians don’t have the power to arrest. So the call to law enforcement will be at the mercy of the principal, as opposed to when you have a deputy or an officer on, they are making that call based on the law.

The Florida Roundup: We've been hearing all through the hour how desperately law enforcement officials, parents, schools, even students themselves who are troubled are crying out for more help and mental health resources in particular. How do you think the legislature should address this problem? There have been some efforts. 

REPRESENTATIVE SHEVRIN JONES: First of all, there is a clear mental health crisis in South Florida schools. It's a silent epidemic that I believe that directly impacts kids performance in our schools. But there are a lot of barriers we look at. As a former teacher myself,  I saw it firsthand, the shortage of counselors and nurses in our schools, but not enough engaged parents. And this conversation that we're not having enough.

There is a trauma that's inside of our classrooms that teachers cannot just be teachers. Teachers are teaching. They are parents. They are being counselors. And so we as a state have to begin doing is, if we're going to put counselors in our schools, counselors cannot be the test givers only. We have to put counselors in our schools who are going to be in the schools to be able to help children when they are in need, when that parent is not in the household. So we have to provide those types of resources. The $69 million, I believe, that was allocated last year after Marjory Stoneman Douglas — the school districts are crying out to make it very clear that that's not enough. There is more to research that's needed.

The Florida Roundup: The governor has proposed $100 million to expand school mental health care. What's the priority for Florida schools? You talk about a mental health crisis happening in Florida public schools. Funds are limited, as you know. But what's the priority for spending of tax dollars?

REPRESENTATIVE SHEVRIN JONES: I believe the priority for the spend of tax dollars is being able to put a specialized class counselors inside our schools to handle these various situations. And I'm not talking about just one counselor. 

We need to make sure that the individual on there could deal with the childhood traumas that's being dealt with. If we look at what's happening in a lot of our communities and specifically if you look at communities, I serve within the African-American community. These are traumas that these kids are seeing on a daily basis.

And counselors have to be individuals who have dealt with this, who have experience in dealing with these types of childhood traumas that these children are dealing with. Teachers can't teach with this type of childhood trauma that a lot of kids are dealing with. So what should be the first party is putting certified individuals inside of our schools who can enter these various situations.

The Florida Roundup: Representative Jones, I want to bring back, though, to your experience as a legislator and working with the DeSantis administration to secure more public funding for mental health in public schools. You spoke about the priority being mental health professionals. I have a real practical question, which is are there mental health professionals to fill the need? And where do the human resources come from here?

REPRESENTATIVE SHEVRIN JONES: That's a very good question. I will say this before I answer that question, this mental health conversation has no party line. I am grateful that the governor sees this as something that we need to attack. So kudos to him, and his administration for doing that.

When it comes to whether or not we have enough mental health counselors here, something that the legislature can do, the legislature can work very closely with our colleges, our universities to give incentives to students who major in it, whether it be psychology or whether the individual will go get their specialist degrees and counseling. We can get some type incentives to place these individuals in schools. I believe this is something that we can do if we have these type of dollars and use those dollars wisely to make sure that we create a bench of mental health counselors who we can actually place inside and some of our schools.

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Denise Royal