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Behind the Ron DeSantis flap in Tampa is a real issue: how to spend mental health money for schools

Sending children outside school for treatment is risky, one school board member says.

TAMPA — Every one of the 240 public schools in Hillsborough County should be staffed with mental health professionals, School Board member Karen Perez said Friday, a day after she tried to make that point during a high-profile verbal joust with Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The governor interrupted Perez when she brought up the subject during a news conference Thursday at Roland Park K-8 School that featured his wife, Casey, making a presentation about mental health. He challenged Perez, saying she was making a speech instead of asking a question.

Perez, a clinical social worker, has made mental health her overriding issue since joining the board in November.

Opinions were divided as to whether she was rude for speaking up, or whether the governor acted improperly when he stepped in to silence her. But aside from questions of decorum, the topic hits at the heart of the state's new effort to pour millions into increased mental health services for students. The issue: How should the money be spent? And is it enough?

In the aftermath of the 2018 shooting deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the state created a new school funding category for mental health services and increased the total allotment this year to $75 million.

But much of that money is spent on collaborations with community agencies that perform the actual counseling, either in therapists' offices or in children's homes.

Under that kind of system, Perez warned that children can fall through the cracks.

She offered, as an example, a text she received from a parent after the Tampa Bay Times reported on her exchange with DeSantis.

"Last year, through school, we had counseling set up through an agency for my son," the parent wrote.

"A counselor came to the house three or four times. It was supposed to be once a week for six months. Then we were told I have to apply for Medicaid to receive the counseling. They discontinued his counseling and of course I don't qualify for Medicaid and my work does NOT carry mental health insurance."

In an email to the Times, Perez said schools should be funded on a level that allows them to take care of children’s mental health needs in-house, much the way every child in Hillsborough County gets free breakfast and a chance to take part in sports and physical exercise.

"Our school system has more accessibility to our children than any other agency in our county and we see our children on a daily basis," Perez wrote. "The child forms a trusting relationship with a psychologist, school counselor and social worker and these relationships also grow through the years as the child attends the school."

Addressing the issue after Thursday’s event with DeSantis, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran said school districts are greatly increasing their counseling staffs now that the state has provided its new source of funding. The money was provided this year as part of a massive school safety measure known as Senate Bill 7030.

According to an analysis of the bill by legislative staff, school districts must develop a detailed plan for spending the added funds. It said those plans must provide “mental health assessment, diagnosis, intervention, treatment, and recovery services to students with one or more mental health or co-occurring substance abuse diagnoses and students at high risk of such diagnoses.”

Districts must coordinate mental health services with private health professionals caring for the student, according to the analysis. The bill gives districts the option of hiring mental health providers directly or serving students indirectly through “a contract-based collaborative effort or partnership with one or more local community mental health programs, agencies, or providers.”

Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins said Thursday that the district makes counseling positions a priority, and that the question of more funding is one for the Legislature.

The district's yearly payroll directory shows that about 200 school social workers and roughly 200 school psychologists were on staff in 2017-18, and again in 2018-19. The number of guidance counselors increased from 351 to 428.

District spokesman Grayson Kamm acknowledged that the model Hillsborough and other districts use provides the first response in the school and then refers many students outside for treatment. "We also have a lot of partners who come into the schools," he said. "Whether we should move to a different model is a discussion worth having."

One way to increase school-based treatment is to create more community schools like Mort Elementary, which uses grant funding to offer various kinds of assistance to students and their families.

“But,” Kamm said, “I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that the governor and his wife, for the first time in my memory, came into one of our schools to talk about mental health. That’s encouraging. The board has put together a thank you letter to the governor, and all seven members have agreed to sign it.”

Kamm also said that senior staff are consulting with Perez on mental health issues.

Contact Marlene Sokol at or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.