Every day I get frantic phone calls from parents of students who are in crisis and need mental health services. As a special education attorney representing students in Palm Beach County and across the state, I see first-hand the types of stressors affecting students today and the struggles school districts face in meeting student needs in the school setting. While Parkland brought this issue to the public’s consciousness, this has been an ongoing issue.
Public schools are required to educate all students who come to their doors, and that requires handling whatever difficulties the students face in their lives: poverty, chaotic home lives, disabilities and mental health conditions. Many children have experienced serious trauma; autism spectrum disorders and ADHD are being diagnosed in an increasing rate; and anxiety and depression are becoming more common in an overwhelming world of academic and social expectations and a constant barrage of technological sensory input. While outside healthcare services can deal with some of this, many students still require support within the school setting in order to function and thrive. Meanwhile, the funding available for these services has decreased as requirements for other mandatory services and programs — and the privatization of public education — have limited what is available for mental health services in the public schools.
Consequently, I urge Palm Beach County residents to vote in favor of the Countywide School Question, which is the last item on the ballot. The referendum to give the school board authority to levy 1.00 mill of ad valorem millage is crucial for our educational system and our county’s need for informed citizens and workers well-equipped for adult life. In addition to funding other vital items, the referendum will provide money for the district to place more mental health professionals in the schools to provide counseling and emotional support to floundering students, help ensure that suspected disabilities can be evaluated and addressed with interventions, and check in to classrooms to make sure children do not fall through the cracks. While the district already has employed and subcontracted psychologists, school counselors and social workers — and is required by recent school safety legislation to increase that number — those professionals are stretched between 185 schools. Moreover, the state’s school safety law did not come close to providing enough funding to pay for the personnel it mandated.
The public is now aware that lack of mental health supports can contribute to tragedies like Parkland. However, providing sufficient funding for mental health services is also crucial to the school district’s mission of successfully preparing our next generation for future success. The referendum will go a long way in filling existing gaps and is worthy of our support.
Kimberley Spire-Oh, West Palm Beach