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Bills addressing Florida students’ mental health near approval

The legislation follows a Times investigation showing thousands of kids were removed from schools and involuntarily committed to mental health facilities.

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature has passed or is nearing passage of two bills that would improve the processes for responding to children’s mental health crises.

House Bill 945 seeks to make a better connection of services from different sources to create a "coordinated system of care" for children and young adults. It passed the Florida Senate on Thursday morning, sending it to Gov. Ron DeSantis' desk.

The bill requires Florida school districts to work with the Louis de la Parte Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida, which will develop a protocol for how schools work with students in mental health crisis.

A key part of the system proposed by the bill is mobile response teams, or on-demand crisis intervention services offered by health care operators that can be provided anytime, anywhere. The bill would require school principals and other personnel to contact one of those teams before they notify law enforcement that a student is in crisis — unless the principal “reasonably believes” that the delay in removing the student from school would "increase the likelihood of harm to the student or others.”

The principal would also be required to “verify that deescalation strategies” had been used before contacting law enforcement. But the bill provides little in the way of accountability to ensure that happens and leaves ultimate authority with law enforcement. None of the rules that apply to principals apply to police.

Rep. Jennifer Webb, D-Gulfport, who worked on some of the language that ended up in the bill, said she sees the bills as a "a really solid first step."

“The most important thing that’s happened, even more than the legislation that was passed, is that I have broad bipartisan support for taking this issue very seriously,” she said. She added that lawmakers from all across the Legislature are invested in improving student mental health services for different reasons.

“The black caucus wants to be involved because, of course, when we talk about locking up kids, it’s disproportionately black and brown kids,” Webb said. “And the libertarians want to be involved because it’s a loss of liberty.”

Other changes aimed more squarely at students’ mental health in schools are part of the Legislature’s school safety package, House Bill 7065, which will likely pass either later Thursday or Friday. In its current form, that bill would require law enforcement on campuses to complete mental health “crisis intervention training,” which must be developed by a national organization with expertise in this area.

Districts also must submit reports to the state stating their ratio of students to school social workers, psychologists and counselors.

The February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which left 17 dead and 17 more injured at the hands of a former student, forced a new focus on student mental health by the Legislature. At the time, lawmakers acknowledged that they had failed to provide enough mental health resources in schools.

A December Tampa Bay Times investigation into the Baker Act, the Florida law that allows people to be involuntarily committed to mental health hospitals, found that thousands of children were taken from schools in the Tampa Bay area every year. That often happened without input from mental health experts or notification to their parents or guardians.

Related: Florida's flawed Baker Act rips thousands of kids from school

Webb said she was disappointed that the final versions of the bills don’t include a requirement that parents be notified before their kids are removed from school and taken to a hospital, something she called a “glaring” omission.

She said there’s more work to be done, including working to collect better data about students who are committed under the Baker Act, something that First Lady Casey DeSantis is also supporting, Webb said.

“That’s how much of a priority this is."

Times staff writer Jack Evans contributed to this report.

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