Q & A with school board candidates

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Posted July 29, 2022 |

Editor’s Note: Leading up to the 2022 primary and general elections, we’ll be asking candidates to weigh in regularly on a question related to the office they seek. The candidates are given almost a week to respond to the questions in writing.  We ask that the candidates keep their answers under 250 words, and we do not edit them at all.

What role should schools play in providing mental health services to students?

District 2

Lori Conrad

Mental health impacts the well being of the students in our schools. Not only in Marion County but nation wide. First, let’s describe what being mentally healthy looks like among school aged children? Being mentally healthy means children reach their developmental and emotional benchmarks. They learn how to manage their social interactions with family and friends in a healthy way. They can cope with their feelings when they meet an obstacle. Mentally healthy children have a positive quality of life and can function well at home and in school.

As members of the public school system we observe and collect data to help or assist in identifying children with symptoms related to mental illness. Some of these illnesses may include but aren’t limited to anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), depression, dealing with grief and suicide. Parents and caregivers may share this data with their child’s pediatrician to create a treatment plan that best meets the needs of their child. Without treatment, these mental health conditions can prevent children from reaching their full potential. Research has shown there is great value in developing comprehensive mental health programs in our schools. When we help our students manage or overcome these issues we are helping them meet their academic potential. Interventions provided within the school setting help students have a better and more positive school experiences that build their social skills, leadership skills, self-awareness, and positive connections with their peers and the adults in their school community.

Joseph Suranni, who is also running for district 2 did not answer this question.

 District 3

Steven Sweet

What roles should Marion County schools have in themental health of student is a complicated question.  I would offer these five ideas for consideration.

  1. Talking about mental health and how to promote good mental health is necessary. Open and honest conversations with students and their parents is vital. Parents must be fully involved and aware of mental health issues affecting their children. No mental health treatment without parent notification and consent.
  2. Training of teachers and school personnel is important. There is a required training program in county schools, so the county is on the right track.  We must proceed carefully in this area as teachers cannot be overburdened with unrealistic workloads and areas of responsibility The home should be the first line of in addressing mental health issues. Of course, the schools must be proactive, the goal is to help the student.
  3. Teaching, mental health should be taught as forthright as physical health. There should be no stigma with addressing mental health. Looking for warning signs and identifying deeply troubled students is training critical for teachers
  4. Real support. with tools and personnel to aid the classroom teacher is essential. Teachers must be involved but not overburdened with unrealistic demands. Teachers are not mental health experts.
  5. Care of teachers, classroom teachers have a demanding and stressful job. Their wellbeing must not be neglected in any programs implemented.

A complex challenge that will require ongoing attention and effort.

Eric Cummings, who is also running for district 3 did not answer this question.

District 5

Dr. Sarah James

I believe there is a shared responsibility between the schools and our families to provide mental health services and support to our students.  Our students spend 1/3 of their day in our schools and for some, the conversations and relationships they have and build with our school staff are incredibly valuable.  In many instances, our staff is the first line of defense for noticing and identifying behaviors that are unusual and concerning in our students.

As a district we have established protocols on our school sites.  When teachers notice concerning behaviors, school based counselors and social workers have steps to follow to ensure that the teacher’s report of behavior is thoroughly followed up on.  If necessary, there are referral steps in place for the student to get the supports they need.  Finally, each campus has a SRO (School Resource Officer) so that if a student needs immediate services they can be available to them.

Ultimately, I believe both the parents and school need to be proactive instead of reactive in regards to mental health. This is accomplished by building healthy relationships with our students / children that are grounded in trust and compassion.  When we have a strong positive relationship with the student, we are able to identify when they are struggling and provide resources to them so they can get the help they need.

We are all in this together.  We need extended families to talk openly.  Youth pastors, coaches, aunts and uncles, and grandparents all have a shared level of responsibility to talk with parents and schools when they see a child struggling.  When we work together, the impact we can make is tremendous.


Taylor Smith

The role of schools in mental health can be taken directly from Florida HB 1421, where safety & security best practices include delineated responsibility for Threat Assessment Teams. “Each district school board shall adopt policies for the establishment of threat assessment teams at each school whose duties include the coordination of resources and assessment and intervention with individuals whose behavior may pose a threat to the safety of school staff or students consistent with the model policies developed by the Office of Safe Schools. Such policies must include procedures for referrals to mental health services identified by the school district.” HB 1421

In addition, the threat assessment team upon learning of a student’s aberrant behavior, has the ability and tools necessary to get help.

Mental health funding has increased each year as we recognize that mental illness can be debilitating if not treated. The Florida Dept of Education requires that each student grades 6 thru 12 receive mental health education each year. As schools are on the frontlines, some students may not have a safe support team at home and it may be a teacher or staff who first recognize an aberrant behavior or a student acting out for attention, and are able to devise a plan to address that student’s issue before turning into a chronic behavior. Referrals can be made and with increased funding this year, Florida continues to address these needs at each school level. Academic success is our top priority and we need to ensure we are able to assist any student overcome any barrier to their success! To close, a school may be the first to identify a child in mental distress, so we certainly need the policy and tools in place to assist!