Palm Beach County schools are delivering five hours of mental health education to all middle and high schoolers, but the rollout isnt without bumps. Teachers have some concerns.
As Palm Beach Lakes Principal David Alfonso sees it, this countys proximity to Parkland has put an exclamation point on the need for security. We take safety incredibly seriously. Everyone is wearing ID badges. Our security is tight. But to prevent violence, we need to build a rapport with kids.
No one wants another child to fall through the cracks and become violent as the Parkland shooter did two years ago Friday. Just as urgently, the number of teens falling to self harm must be curbed, educators, legislators and health experts agree.
Enter a state edict to deliver five hours of mental health to every student grades six to 12 by the end of this school year and every one to come.
In the scramble to meet that demand, Palm Beach County schools bought a set of lesson plans and have begun to introduce the material in hundreds of classrooms.
The rollout has been swift, with some schools reporting theyve delivered several if not all of the lessons and others reporting they plan to hit the mark in the next two months.
But the path to meeting the state mandate hasnt been without its bumps, the loudest concern being voiced by teachers.
They just dont want to do it wrong
Everyone understands the need for this, said Justin Katz, president of the countys teachers union.
Teachers want to know its being done by the right people. You can give a teacher content to teach, but when a kid comes up with a real-world question, just because Ive read some lesson plans doesn't make me a child psychologist.
They just dont want to do it wrong, Katz said. They are very concerned about that.
The stakes are high in the post-Parkland shooting world.
Student mental health moved to the front burner with the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act, which aimed not just to improve campus policing but also get help for students who, like the shooter, may have fallen through the cracks in the past.
The requirement to educate students with five hours of lessons annually came after that legislation in a rule approved this summer by the states board of education.
Districts had until December to spell out their plan to give those lessons.They could ask anyone on campus to deliver the message. They could do it in large assemblies or in small groups or regular classes. They could create the lessons in-house, use samples offered by the state or buy pre-packaged plans from a vendor.
A glance at those plans on the state website reveals a range of approaches.
Miami-Dade students will get mental health education in their English classes. In Duval County the instruction will happen once a month during districtwide Wellness Wednesdays.
District administrators in Palm Beach County considered the options, invited vendors to put on demonstrations and, in the end, spent $275,000 on a package from Evolution Labs, a company that already provided other lessons to this district and a handful of others.
Were excited. This is a really good product developed by professionals in the mental behavioral health arena, said Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald. Each lesson plan comes with instructions on how to address a particular topic.
Principals get the final say
While district administrators picked the lessons, they let principals decide how those lessons would be delivered on their campuses, including who would teach them and when they would be taught.
Principal Alfonso already had a block of periods in which some students were stuck in the same class for hours while others tested. In the past, the teachers with students who werent being tested typically moved through extra lessons. That meant, for example, that one teachers third period Algebra 1 students were a few lectures ahead of those in that teachers other classes.
Alfonso and his teachers agreed this was their window.
Teachers not involved in testing would deliver mental health lessons, branded Suite 360 by Evolution Labs. Testing rotates by grade and eventually all Palm Beach Lakes students would sit through the eight 50-minute lessons doled out four at a time, Alfonso said.
The principal appreciated flexibility that allowed him to preserve time dedicated to math or English. And he said students seemed to be engaged.
Kids are talking about it
Sometimes mandates can be a bit dry. This was not dry. When I walked through, I was very impressed with the quality of the lessons, Alfonso said.
In the courtyard, I rarely hear kids talk about calculus or that kind of stuff, but those kids were talking about this, Alfonso said.
He said feedback from his teachers has also been positive. They told him they like the Ted-talk style videos that had kids thinking about mental wellness as a matter of health, like the flu or cancer, Alfonso said.
But theres little doubt teachers across the district have some reservations, Katz said.
The water cooler talk at one school has revealed a general level of discomfort and worry that theyre going to say the wrong thing, said a teacher at one local high school who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.
The initial lessons arent that bad, but heavier ones are coming, like one on suicide, she said. She chalked up some concern to fear of the unknown. We tend to fear most things before they happen. Weve been tapping our mental health counselors on campus, talking about how to say some things. Not that we dont see the value, but I just feel like putting this down on teachers is too much pressure.
The co-founder of the New Jersey-based Evolution Labs, Tracy Howe - who has temporarily moved to West Palm Beach to assist in the Suite 360 implementation here and in five other counties, said the company was mindful of those concerns.
We certainly realize many people that are interacting with kids arent going to have a mental health background, Howe said. We tried to design the program so it would work with any implementation style. We created teacher companion guides to equip teachers to feel more comfortable.
That includes telling teachers where to direct students who have signaled they need deeper conversations or help.
The program was designed to create mental health awareness, not to provide mental health counseling, she said.
The state requires students learn the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders, how to speak to peers struggling with those disorders. The lessons should also detail resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and the school security app, FortifyFl.
Experts agree this information must be shared with people before they reach adulthood, because the first signs or symptoms of mental health problems can appear years earlier.
The American Psychiatric Association reports roughly half of mental illness cases begin by age 14 and three quarters by 24. But those signs are often dismissed, researchers say, either because they arent seen for what they are, or the associated stigma drives people to dismiss, ignore or rationalize what they witness.
At Dreyfoos School of the Arts the teachers didnt impart these lessons, the principal and her administrative staff did.
As principal of the school I felt like I needed to know what it was. I wanted to own it, said Susan Atherley. But Atherley came to the task armed better than most. She is a former school guidance counselor and a licensed mental health counselor who for years ran a private practice outside of her job in public schools.
Atherley decided she would deliver the lessons in several classes, as her assistant principals, guidance counselors and mental health specialists 11 administrators total took turns observing. That way they were all on the same page, she said.
Then they, too, went out into teachers rooms and delivered the lessons.
Atherley said she relished the opportunity to teach a class once again and to ease faculty concerns. A lot of them said to me, I feel nervous about doing it.
She plans to revisit their delivery at the end of the year and have a school-wide discussion about whether the teachers want to give it a try. Maybe theyll be more comfortable now theyve seen the lessons taught.
Atherley gave the program high marks.
The kids have enjoyed it, she said. Atherley and Dreyfoos faculty have experienced their share of emotional and mental health trauma.
In the summer of 2013 when students werent on campus, two janitors were shot to death by a colleague. The following year, two Dreyfoos students died in their home at the hands of their mother in a murder-suicide. More recently, one of the schools graduates and one of its students committed suicide.
Thats why I knew it was so important to talk about it, Atherley said. Were glad were finally giving kids the tools they need. Kids are stressed. The lessons helped them to cope with stress before it becomes distress.
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