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New mental health interventions are working, Sarasota County school officials say
The Herald-Tribune - 3/3/2021
Mar. 3—While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a host of new mental health challenges to Sarasota County schools, the district has actually seen a decrease in the number of children receiving some of the more extreme interventions for mental health crises, and school officials say that is a good thing.
Baker Act determinations, in which someone who is in danger of harming themselves can be involuntarily detained by law enforcement, were down significantly, according to data presented to the Student Support Services Director Deb Giacolone.
In 2019, the school district had 166 Baker Act confinements during the first semester, but this year there were 108, a reduction of 35%.
Giacolone credited a new state law, which requires districts to deploy a mobile response team to a student if they express wanting to harm themselves, before referring that student to a School Resource Officer.
Those interventions are working, Giacolone said. First Step of Sarasota recently took over the mobile response to mental health crises throughout the district, which means students in crisis talk to a mental health professional, rather than simply being detained.
The Baker Act reduction was a positive snapshot amidst increasing concern over how the pandemic is impacting students' mental health.
In February, School Board member Tom Edwards urged staff and the rest of the board to focus on student well-being.
Edwards said during his visits to schools, it had become apparent to him that Sarasota was providing admirable service, but students needed more mental health resources.
"We have a serious issue of kids in the queue to get these services," Edwards said. "... It can take multiple days."
According to data from the state Department of Education, Sarasota had one student service worker, which could be a school counselor, psychologist or social worker, for every 311 students. That puts their workload slightly above the state average of one student service employee for every 296 students.
Giacolone estimated there are roughly 10,177 children and young adults with untreated mental illness living in Sarasota. That figure is based on a study by the University of South Florida.
Superintendent Brennan Asplen said, even though the district had fewer students this year than last, "Our needs grew exponentially because of COVID."
Giacolone told the board how the "Adverse Childhood Experience" score has become a predictor for whether a child is likely to struggle in school, be chronically absent, have behavior problems and have poor health. The score is based on the number of traumatizing events a child experiences early in life, including abuse, witnessing violence, having their parents get divorced or experiencing neglect.
The more experiences, the more likely a child is to struggle later in life and have mental health issues.
School officials worry that the pandemic is likely to have increased the number of adverse experiences for children. Last spring when schools shut down, the number of calls to the Department of Children and Families Child Abuse Hotline dropped precipitously, raising concerns that abuse was going unreported as children remained in isolation at home.
School Board member Karen Rose said reinforcing the need for mental health resources will remain a top priority, especially as the board develops a long-term strategic plan and appeals to voter support for an ad-valorem one-mill property tax up for renewal in 2022.
Ryan McKinnon covers schools for the Herald-Tribune. Connect with him at email@example.com or on Twitter: @JRMcKinnon.
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