MCPS will explore mental health plans in late June

File Photo: Don Browning of District 2 speaks during a meeting of the Marion County Public School Board at the MTI auditorium in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, April 26, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted May 26, 2022 | Caroline Brauchler

The Marion County School Board scheduled a public hearing for the end of June to approve the 2022-2023 MCPS Mental Health Assistance Allocation Plan during a meeting on Tuesday.

The hearing to approve the plan will take place on June 28, and if passed will allocate over $1.77 million dollars towards the safety and emotional wellness of Marion County students in accordance with the requirements of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public High School Safety Act.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that a lot of kids these days are really suffering. We have a lot that are doing great and just fine, but we want to make sure they stay that way,” said Board Member Nancy Thrower. “The ones that already have identified needs, we want to address them and have good people supporting them.”

Each district in the state is required to create a comprehensive mental health assistance plan that includes procedures for providing referrals for school-based and community-based mental health treatment; efforts to increase awareness, prevention and intervention strategies surrounding mental health; and screening tools and assessment procedures to identify student needs.

Thrower said that since the plan was implemented in 2018, she has noticed a decrease in the stigma surrounding discussions of mental health, and that the funds are allocated towards a wide array of resources and curriculums that benefit the students.

“We have used that allocation to hire more school social workers, to hire more school psychologists and to purchase the curriculum that is a requirement of the state for Social Emotional Learning,” Thrower said.

Social and Emotional Learning is a state-required curriculum that teaches children in schools the skills necessary to manage and understand their emotions, in addition to creating positive relationships, showing empathy, making good decisions and setting goals. She elaborated that many people criticize the curriculum but that it is not under the jurisdiction of the school board to change.

“A lot of people in the community don’t realize that that is mandated, that we teach Social Emotional Learning, and our district has chosen to purchase the curriculum because we think it’s better than what was available for free,” Thrower said.

School Board Vice-Chair Allison Campbell said that today’s students face much different difficulties as they did when the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public High School Safety Act was first signed into law by former Governor Rick Scott.

“I think that federally and statewide it’s understood that this pandemic has caused significant challenges among out students even more so than what originally the plans were purposed to do,” Campbell said.

She said that the effects of the pandemic and effectiveness of the MCPS Mental Health Assistance Allocation Plan are not quantifiable, and that the mental health professionals who recommend action to the board may find it wise to alter the plan in coming years as a result as they see fit.

“Quarantining in and of itself removes students from classrooms, removes employees from schools and from their jobs, which causes additional mental health issues that aren’t necessarily challenges that we have ever experienced prior to that,” Campbell said.

When it came time for the board to approve the motion to schedule the public hearing on June 28 to approve the plan, Board Member Don Browning pulled the agenda item aside for further discussion. Browning raised specific concerns about the content of the plan, rather than the scheduling of the hearing to discuss the plan that was on the table for approval by the board.

“Mental health is an important issue, and it does not belong to an institution like a school district,” Browning said. “I am absolutely appalled that we would…look at 100% and categorize 75% as mentally healthy and then break them down by race and by sex like we’re some sort of a clinic.”

These specific concerns regarded the Behavioral and Emotional Risk Index portion of the plan that highlights the percentage of students at a higher risk for mental health concerns and the demographics that fall within that percentile.

“This board member is just appalled by the way this statute is being implemented,” Browning said. “I, for one, will work very hard with our legislators and with the governor to see that this is drilled down to provide safety, and care, and kindness and decency.”

Browning said that if it were the approval of the plan that was on the table for a vote today, that he would vote ‘no’ on its passing. Campbell countered his statements by clarifying that only the scheduling of the public hearing was up for approval, and that if he were to vote ‘yes’ on scheduling the hearing, that it would give the school board and the public the opportunity to engage in further discussion on the plan’s contents.

“Just today is for us to schedule the public hearing so that between now and June 28 some of these questions may be able to be answered as well as the public be able to weigh in on the plan itself,” Campbell said.

The school board is required by law to schedule and hold the public hearing, and then to submit a plan to the Commission of Education by August 1. The specific content of the plan may be altered based on the discussion that occurs within the school board and from the public until and when the public hearing takes place at the end of June.

The funds allocated may also roll over to the following school year if not completely used by the district, adding over $483 thousand dollars from the previous year to the existing $1.77 million dollars that will be allocated to the district in the 2022-2023 school year if the plan is approved.

“One of the benefits of this much appreciated allocation is the fact that the money can be rolled over year after year,” Thrower said. “I’m comfortable with continuing to take our time because when we’re hiring, especially school social workers and school psychologists, we want to make sure that we’re hiring the highest quality people that we can recruit.”

Thrower said that the time she has spent inside schools and classrooms in her district has shown her that the attention and awareness diverted towards mental health has been held at a higher priority than ever before.

“The outcome is that anyone that we’re responsible for gets the help that they need,” Thrower said. “Physical, emotional, you name it.”