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New Mental Health Crisis Teams Aim To Limit Suspensions, Baker Acts In Broward Schools

Al Diaz/Miami Herald

Broward County Public Schools is using state funding provided after the Parkland shooting to assemble mental health crisis teams that administrators hope will help curb violence, suspensions and Baker Act referrals.

The district received a $5.1 million state grant for mental health care during the school year, following the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and that funding has increased since. The Legislature’s increase of funding for mental health care came in response to a troubled former student returning to the high school’s campus in Parkland and killing 14 students and three staff members.

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With the funding, the district hired 60 mental health professionals and split them into five teams of 12 serving different regions of the county. They include family therapists, school psychologists, counselors, social workers, behavior analysts and nurses.

Marisa Kinney, supervisor of school social work services for the district, said offering targeted intensive care to students who need it most could mean fewer discipline referrals and suspensions, and fewer incidents in which students are involuntarily hospitalized for psychiatric care under Florida's Baker Act.

We are certainly hoping that — with additional support and both prevention and intervention — we can avoid the discipline issues, the violence and ultimate tragedies that have occurred in our district,” Kinney said.

“These teams will come in to fill the gap, or whatever is beyond the scope of the current mental health professionals assigned to the schools,” Kinney said, “providing additional services that we weren't always able to provide, such as the immediate crisis reports or the one-on-one follow up and monitoring of students that are having these issues.”

Providing mental health care to students is more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. Broward’s new school year started virtually Aug. 19.

Kinney said the same online platforms the district uses for teaching students — Canvas and Microsoft Teams — will come in handy for helping students in crisis.

“There will be a quick document [in which] the student will list their name, their school, and also there will be checkboxes depending on what needs they have,” Kinney said. “There are links and immediate notification buttons, so that students can even themselves click to get immediate support.”

He said a student who needs help right away would be routed a 24/7 emergency hotline.

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Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.