School district expands mental health services

The Pasco County school district has been ramping up training and tapping into outside sources, in its quest to build a better mental health support network for students.

Statistics from across the school district underscore a compelling need for increased services.

District figures show that more than 1,200 suicide assessments were done last year of students in elementary, middle and high schools.

The breakdown showed that 463 suicide assessments were reported at the elementary school level; 408 at the middle school level; and, 308 at the high school level.

There also were nearly 600 threat assessments across the district, with 278 reported at the elementary level; 134 at the middle school level; and, 186 at the high school level.

Jeannine Welch, Melissa Musselwhite and Vicki Papaemanuel are leading up efforts to expand mental health services within Pasco County Schools. (B.C. Manion)

District data regarding Baker Act cases reported 171 at the elementary level; 211 at the middle school level; and, 207 at the high school level.

Baker Act cases involve individuals who are deemed to be a threat to themselves or others who are referred for mental evaluation.

“We obviously have many students that need significant support from us, relating to mental health,” said Melissa Musselwhite, the district’s director of student support programs, during a school board session on mental health held this summer.

Pasco Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning pointed to the suicide assessments.

“Twelve hundred and sixty — 463 just in elementary school alone,” Browning noted.

He also observed there were more suicide assessments at elementary level, than in high school.

“The same with threats,” noted School Board Chairwoman Alison Crumbley. “It’s (threats) higher at elementary.”

Jeannine Welch, senior supervisor for student support services, told board members that it’s  difficult to pinpoint what the statistics mean. For instance, a suicide assessment could refer to a student who was assessed, but not in any danger.

Musselwhite also said more information is needed: “Do we have the same standard for kids we are referring, let’s say for suicide assessment?

“If the kid has scissors and says, ‘I’m going to stab you,’ or ‘I’m going to stab myself,’ do we have a common practice across the district how we respond to that?

“Those are questions. I don’t know. We really need to analyze the data more deeply,” Musselwhite said.

Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Schools David Scanga said the statistics are telling.

“It does reflect the stress level of elementary that probably 10 years ago we didn’t see,” he said. “So, the stress on the families, the stress on the communities, the stress within the building. I hear what Melissa is saying, but we also know and agree that there are things in elementary that we’re dealing with that are more frequent — not that they were never there — but they are more frequent than they were in the past.”

To help address the needs, the district has been collaborating with Central Florida Behavioral Health Network, which has allowed the district to expand its services.

Central Florida has worked out a memorandum of understanding with all of the providers, so the district doesn’t have to obtain a separate contract for a specialized service, Welch said.

Students receiving services are run through a voucher system.

That helps stretch the district’s spending capacity because if a child is eligible for Medicaid, or would be potentially eligible, those dollars are used first, Welch said.

The district has added key personnel and has expanded training efforts.

It has added mental health coaches to coach school-based student services staff regarding mental health initiatives.

The mental health liaison has been able to help analyze data, and also has provided “literally, someone to call instantly in order to be able to problem-solve with some of the situations we have within schools,” Musselwhite said.

The district is working to improve its supports for students.

When a student has been Baker-acted, for instance, the district wants to be sure it supports that student when he or sure returns to school.

“We want to make sure that it’s truly done as a safety net for them,” Welch said.

“We’ve had kids that have been gone for a week and come back, and said they’ve been on a Disney cruise. They weren’t on the Disney cruise,” Welch said.

The district has ramped up training.

“We are required to train staff and make sure they have first-aiders at schools. When this first came out, we had zero trainers,” Welch said. “This summer we’ve trained 688 staff members.”

The district continues to build on its capacity, she said.

“We spent this year building up trainers,” she said.

“It shouldn’t just be the administrator. It should be others that, these are embedded practices that live on, regardless of the leadership,” she said.

“The state has rolled out a new threat assessment  protocol that we’ll be training all student services and administrative staff, in the next month (by Oct. 1),” Musselwhite said.

“The majority of the day will be around the threat assessment, behavioral threat assessment that the state mandated, using a specific  tool and a training platform,” said Vicki Papaemanuel, who will be overseeing the training for the district.

“The second half of the day will be around threat to self or suicide assessment,” she said.

Threat assessments
Elementary: 278
Middle: 134
High School: 186
Total: 598

Suicide assessments
Elementary: 463
Middle: 408
High School: 308
Total: 1,260

2018-2019 Baker Act Data
Elementary: 171
Middle: 211
High school: 207

Source: Pasco County Schools

Published September 18, 2019

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