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Student mental health days: The back-story in Hillsborough

School board member Karen Perez sees student stress in her social work practice.
Hillsborough County School Board member Karen Perez
Hillsborough County School Board member Karen Perez [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]
Published Nov. 19, 2019
Updated Nov. 20, 2019

TAMPA - Karen Perez ran for Hillsborough County School Board as the mental health candidate, and that has been her focus since she took office a year ago.

Now Perez is looking ahead to the Legislative session, when one of her ideas could move closer to becoming state law.

Student mental health days would become recognized school absences under a bill filed by Susan Valdes in the state house and Darryl Rouson in the Senate.

In announcing the bill, Valdes, a Democrat and former School Board member representing West Tampa, acknowledged she worked with Perez.

“It was really a collaboration,” said Valdes, who has known Perez, a clinical social worker, for years.

Perez said she first got the idea earlier in the year, when the state of Oregon created student mental health days. If Oregon could do it, she thought, why not Hillsborough County, the seventh largest school district in the nation?

“I hear adults have mental health days,” said Perez who, in addition to treating children and veterans, runs corporate employee assistance programs. “We always say, ‘I’m going to call in for a mental health day. I’m going to take a break.’ But our kids don’t have that ability to do that.”

Perez said she hears increasingly from clients who become anxious after news of school shootings, or active shooter drills in the schools.

Then a family came to her one evening for an emergency session. The child had lost her grandmother earlier in the day. They were very close. The child’s mother told her, “you have to go to school. We’re going to handle this and when you get home from school, we’ll talk about it.”

The child wound up in the nurse’s office with stomach pains. “All the little girl did was cry,” Perez said. “She wanted to get past losing her grandmother that morning.”

Perez wondered if the school district could create a new policy. But, in her research, she learned it would have to be allowed in state law.

So she took the idea to Valdes.

The resulting Florida HB 315 would allow one mental health day for every semester as an excused absence. The student would need to supply a parental note.

“I’m hoping this is a bill that brings a little bit of common sense to schools boards,” Valdes said.

“It might also open up the conversations among families. If a child says, ‘mom, I need to use a mental health day today, I don’t feel like going to school,’ that’s an opportunity for a conversation about what may be happening at schools. It’s a red flag for parents to dig a little bit deeper and begin to remove the stigma of the conversation about mental health.”

For Perez, it is also an unusual opportunity to initiate change on a large scale.

“I’m excited,” she said. “As a School Board member, this is what we do. We look out for kids. And it’s just not on a local level. We can have an impact on a state level too."