A $1 million grant will beef up mental health training in Palm Beach County schools

South Florida Sun Sentinel

Jan 27, 2022 5:00 AM

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As students and staff members navigate going to school during a pandemic that many say has triggered a community mental health crisis, Palm Beach County schools will beef up mental health training with a $1 million federal grant.

The school district will use the grant money to hire two staff members to train district staff to respond to mental health crises in schools and teach students to recognize signs of distress in themselves and their peers.

The STOP School Violence program has already been implemented in certain high schools in the district, said Keith Oswald, chief of equity and wellness for Palm Beach County schools. Now, with the help of the three-year grant, the district can expand the curriculum to reach 19,000 students and train 1,260 of them as “safe school ambassadors.”

“The stop school violence grant is going to address the number one concern that I’ve heard from constituents and families in Palm Beach County over the last year, which is the mental health and safety of their children,” said school board member Alexandria Ayala. “If you’re actively engaged with young people, with students, with schools… It is highly pressurized right now.”

Ayala said a year of at-home learning has intensified the issues.

Students relied on social media as a tool to stay connected with their peers during remote learning. But too much social media can be toxic to young minds, especially young women, Ayala said.

Ayala said she receives calls from parents who say they had to hospitalize their kid under Florida’s Baker Act because they were in such deep emotional distress after not receiving the ACT test score they’d hoped for. Others have had to put their child in counseling because they brought something to hurt themselves or others on campus.

“When they are struggling, it is not the student’s fault,” she said. “It is our job to support them, to meet them where they’re at and give them the resources to come out of that and be successful.”

There are currently more than 3,000 students with referrals to mental health services in Palm Beach County, Oswald said. And schools have seen an exponential increase in violence and threats on campus since students returned to schools.

The program will train students and staff to identify a problem, de-escalate conflict and learn who to contact in the midst of a mental health crisis. When a classmate is having a panic attack or getting bullied, students who’ve taken the course can make a quick but educated determination about their risk of suicide or harm to others.

They’ll better know how to communicate with the person in distress, who may be irrational or manic.

“In teen mental health first aid, we teach kids about risk factors and signs and symptoms of mental health distress,” Oswald said. “It goes further to how do you develop an action plan.

“Kids are referring other kids — saying ‘hey, my friend, I think she’s having a real hard time. What can we do?’” he said. “So we know kids want to help other kids. We’re empowering them with more tools and strategies to address that.”

Besides Palm Beach County, Lee and Hillsborough are the only other counties in Florida that received the federal grant.

U.S. Rep Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, who helped secure the funding for Palm Beach County, said the program could have helped prevent the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

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