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Mental health lessons coming to Pasco schools

But where? With the state requiring these plus classes in substance abuse and human trafficking, they’re hard to fit in.
First Lady Casey DeSantis talks with students during the Hope for Healing a mental and substance abuse initiative held Roland Park K-8 School in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, May 16, 2019. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said state officials worked closely with DeSantis to craft the new rule. OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Pasco County schools are about to launch a series of new lessons aimed at helping middle and high school students identify signs of mental illness, and know the resources available, so they can help themselves or others in need.

The information won’t be coming in physical education courses. And social workers or guidance counselors won’t be providing the instruction.

The state-required five hours will be offered in English classes.

That might not sound like the best fit at first glance, district administrators acknowledged.

But “really the only course that all kids are guaranteed to take in grades six through 12 is English-language arts,” said Matt Wicks, who oversees health and physical education for the school district. “So they will get the instruction in that class.”

Plus, the district does not have nearly enough counselors to get into every classroom in every middle and high school to meet the mandate.

Since the state says only that certified teachers must lead the lessons, the district has chosen to turn to the English teachers. They will get three hours of training, paid for by a state grant, to get ready to implement the program.

The district’s official mental health team also will provide support and materials to back up the teachers, in case they run into any hurdles. The preparations have begun, Wicks said, with individual schools determining exactly when to start.

Some might begin after spring break. Others might wait until after annual testing.

Getting the lessons in place has proven a scramble across Florida, as the requirement came toward the end of the summer, after schools were well into preparations for the year.

It emerged as yet another response to the 2018 Parkland school shooting, as state leaders declared that Florida’s schools needed to focus attention on students’ mental health needs right alongside schools’ security requirements.

Lawmakers poured millions of dollars into providing added services. The State Board of Education, at the urging of Casey DeSantis, mandated five hours of mental health instruction for every middle and high school student.

The mental health mandate came into play at the same time that the schools also were instructed to begin providing lessons on substance abuse and human trafficking.

Wicks said the Pasco schools have found it easier to comply with the latter two, even though they apply to all grade levels beginning with kindergarten. That’s because there’s no specific time requirement, and much of the information already is provided.

Many Pasco schools cover substance abuse through Red Ribbon Week activities, for instance, Wicks said. High schools often tackle the topic when discussing prom safety.

Counselors at all schools regularly cover trafficking in the Safer Smarter Kids and Safer Smarter Teens curriculum, he added.

The district plans to keep an eye on how the initiative plays out in the schools — particularly with the English teachers leading mental health lessons. If any changes are needed, Wicks said, changes will follow.

“It’s the plan we developed for this year,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”