Florida School Superintendents: 'Now Is The Time' To Deliver Student Mental Healthcare

Apr 30, 2018

Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie speaking to a reporter at a mental health summit he hosted in Orlando.
Credit Margie Menzel

Last week, Florida's 67 district school superintendents held a mental health summit to address what they'd already considered a crisis before the Parkland tragedy. Led by Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie, the summit drew lawmakers, behavioral health providers and state agency heads to Orlando for what many called an unprecedented gathering.

The summit had been in the works for months. It was actually the second one; the first had been in January, just weeks before Nikolas Cruz opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Ironically, it had been Broward's Runcie, president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, who led the group to address student mental health, which he considers a grave crisis.

Runcie estimates 70 percent of Florida students have been traumatized by adverse childhood experiences, ranging from poverty to family violence to the death of a parent. And U.S. Census data show roughly one million of Florida's under-18 population experiencing behavioral health disorders that negatively affect their ability to function in school, at home or in the community.

Former Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning is the superintendent of the Pasco County schools.

"These kids deserve a chance to work themselves – work themselves – with help, with support, out of poverty, and out of the trauma that they're experiencing," he said. "I don't care what your political persuasion is, whether you're a conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, this is an issue that affects all of us. And if we seriously don't come to terms with it, and think of ways – to develop ways to support these kids and families, we are just getting further and further, deeper and deeper in this hole."

That seemed borne out by the number of state leaders who attended the summit, including Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley and Kathleen Passidomo, chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee for K-12 Appropriations.

Since the shooting, the Legislature passed SB 7026, also known as the "Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act." Among its many provisions, the measure includes nearly $70 million in mental health assistance to the schools, $6.7 million for youth mental health awareness and training, and $9.8 million to the Department of Children and Families for additional Community Action Treatment Teams, an alternative to out-of-home placement for minors with serious behavioral health conditions.

Making those resources stretch as far as possible was a major goal of the summit. Many superintendents, especially those from poor rural counties, asked what would happen when the initial funds ran dry. Collecting data on their outcomes was essential, they were told.

Jason Brodeur, chairman of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee, said the schools must make sure the information is captured to show its value.

"In providing these for the schools, I think the value will become obvious, and we'll have to make it more of a priority if we want to achieve the outcomes of allowing students to make healthy choices that allow them to focus on their education," Brodeur said.

And Senate budget chief Bradley said lawmakers will be monitoring the schools' strategy and progress.

"The thing that ignited it was the Stoneman Douglas incident and then the Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act, because it challenged our local partners to find solutions, because they're the ones on the ground," Bradley said. "And then we will come and get the feedback and fill in the blanks and provide the necessary support."

Few doubted the summit was an historic moment, and certainly not Robert Runcie.

"I think now is the time," he said. "This is our moment in history to get this right, and I believe it'll have a dramatic impact on the future of public education and the outcomes. Because ultimately what we want to do is to give our kids the skills to be able to deal with life challenges, to be able to learn from them, and to be successful citizens of the world."

Browning said part of the superintendents' job is to keep lawmakers engaged as they move forward.