MCPS assess student mental health needs and resources

Shown in a slow exposure, students leave West Port High School in Ocala, Fla. after the last bell on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

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Posted May 12, 2023 | By Lauren Morrish

Marion County Public Schools’ Department of Mental Health and Wellness shared its MCPS Mental Health Assistance Allocation Plan with school board members April 20, which outlined five intervention goals and the framework for services.

Yvette del Nodal, mental health and wellness director, and Amanda Steckman, mental health and wellness coordinator, told board members the plan operates under the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act enacted March 9, 2018, and allocates funding for Safe Schools’ mental health behavioral prevention and intervention procedures.

The five intervention goals that fulfill Florida’s requirements include: access, a multi-tiered system of support framework, professional development, community resources, and family engagement.

The first goal, of access, allows the availability of mental health and behavioral services such as personnel and providers. These professionals identify and refer students for early assistance.

The purpose set by the Florida Department of Education is to reduce the student-to-provider ratio, in order to open up support directly to elementary, middle, and high school students.

A continuation of funds for the 2023-2024 school year will go toward three school counselors, five school psychologists, and seven school social work staff who will address behavioral concerns.

An observation tool used through the access goal measured data, during the Spring of this school year, to help identify external and internal behavior elevation levels. At the elementary level, 10% of students were highly elevated, 16% elevated, and 74% considered normal.

Meanwhile, at the middle school level, in Fort McCoy School, 21% were highly elevated, 24% elevated, and 55% deemed normal behavior. The middle educational level was not collected universally due to student self-report.

In addition to identification data and enhanced providers, the access step includes a multi-disciplinary team referral form requiring a school staff referral of a student for intervention.

The second goal of a multi-tiered system of support framework has three tiers that establish a mental health curriculum.

Tier 1 support is accessible to all students and teach cooperation in the classroom, while Tier 2 support is provided to groups by multi-disciplinary team members meeting specific recognized needs.

Tier 3 operates with support unsuccessful in tiers 1 and 2. This is the highest level addressed with intensified and individualized care.

“We have seen an increase in student need across Marion County Schools,” Steckman said. The number of multi-disciplinary referrals of students has increased by 439 in one year.

This framework incorporates suicide and threat assessments from August to April in a school year. The number of suicide assessments decreased from last year by 16 while the number of threat assessments increased by 138 since last year.

Goal three of professional development, trains staff to properly locate and support students struggling in need of aid. They are prepped to flag early symptoms of mental health challenges.

As of 2018, the state requires all district-employed school staff to be trained in youth mental health first aid. As of last year, at least 80% of elementary, middle, and high school staff personnel must be trained for youth mental health first aid.

Steckman said Marion County Public Schools has never ceased the training program even with the hurdles of Covid 19, which included virtual learning.

The fourth goal in the allocation plan is community resources, which utilizes the departments’ partners to connect students and families to services for further help. Meetings under this goal are conducted as a community once every other month. Specific local review team meetings allow collaboration between agencies and youth.

Community resources include agencies, law enforcement, private providers, state collaborators, and the departments of juvenile justice and children and families.

A service navigation tool is now available to the county and community through this portion, navigating families to helpful resources.

“These community collaborations are imperative to the success that we see with our students,” said Steckman.

The resources include a local Baker Act facility to carry out de-escalation recommendations and procedures if appropriate. School staff does not determine criteria for Baker Acting students, but law enforcement and safety resource officers have that jurisdiction.

Just this year, the elementary and high school leveled student Baker Act count has increased from the prior school year, while middle school Baker Act incidents decreased.

“Baker Acts have absolutely saved lives,” School Board Chair Allison Campbell said.

Nodal added the procedures department staff takes in determining this de-escalation measure.

“So, for us, our teams are doing a risk assessment,” Nodal said. “If during that risk assessment, we determine that the child or the student is at a high-level risk where we are concerned about their safety, then we are engaging our law enforcement and then they go through their criteria to make sure whether they meet criteria for a Baker Act or not.”

Campbell said she is grateful for this plan to have saved potentially 100 students’ lives, but this measure should be a last result and used during an imminent threat.

Goal five enlists school-based multi-disciplinary teams to assist families in navigating services and accessing support for their children.

Steckman said the department is bringing back Youth Mental Health First Aid Training for Parents this summer.

“Who better to receive that training than those that spend a good majority of their time with their children and seeing those first signs and symptoms of mental health challenges, and then getting them help right away, is so important,” said Steckman

Further resources available include a mental health and wellness webpage for aid, parent partnership events, and county counseling services.

The budget for the plan stresses providers to students. Mental health staff and professional training are estimated to consume 90% of the finances. Fifteen staff members will enable direct assistance to students, while four health staff members will implement the framework of the plan through wider district-level support.

The board projected insight into the toll mental health challenges have on students and campuses.

“There’s not a school I go to where this is not one of the biggest areas of concern,” said Marion County Public Schools Superintendent Diane Gullett.


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