After the shooting in Newtown, Conn., there's hardly a school district that hasn't asked itself: Are we doing enough to keep children safe? Pinellas school psychologists and social workers wish they had more time to counsel students with potential mental health issues, student services executive director Donna Sicilian told the school board Thursday morning. But she also pointed to dozens of community organizations that are stepping up to provide those services and fill these gaps. In the end, she didn't call for an overhaul of the school system's mental health services.
Instead, Sicilian told the board, her staff would meet with more outside agencies and consider providing counseling to students before and after school rather than during class; often students who need counseling also are struggling academically, and she was hesitant to keep pulling them out of class.
The district doesn't have enough money to put a full-time social worker and psychologist in each school. But Sicilian said a tiered staffing model generally makes sure that schools with the need for these counselors get them. For social workers, the school system examines the number of English-language learners and the proportion of students living in poverty, as well as special-needs like autism. When staffing psychologists, administrators tend to focus on FCAT scores, because mental health issues are sometimes associated with testing stresses.
"What that results in is sort of a ranking of schools based on their assumed need," Sicilian said. Still, she acknowledged that oftentimes psychologists and social workers get bogged down in academic counseling and paperwork. "You came into the field saying 'I want to work with kids, I want to counsel kids.' You probably didn't come into the field saying you wanted to work on reports."
About 30 outside agencies currently offer mental health services to Pinellas students, with about seven specifically focused on counseling. Sicilian said these therapists often use school-time for visits, but she wants to look at before and after school time to avoid pulling students out of class.
School board member Rene Flowers said she wanted staff to be mindful that sometimes very smart, high-performing children are struggling with mental issues. She also wanted to make sure teachers were not dismissing students who acted out as simply unruly. "It's not disobedience. It's far more than that," Flowers said.
Robin Wikle, also on the school board, called the briefing "educational" and praised staff for being "preventative" rather than reactive. "Research shows most criminal activity starts with a childhood trauma," she said. "There's research on that."
The school board may pick up the discussion at a future meeting, but did not make specific plans to continue the talk.