BROOKSVILLE — A Hernando County school administrator, whose team addresses student emotional and behavioral problems, said the district is finding success with a new tool that identifies whether a child is having suicidal thoughts.
The district also has more than doubled its social worker force, from six last year to 15 this year. And it has called in BayCare’s mental health Mobile Response Team 235 times from February of last year through last month.
All of this is in effort to help students before they go into a crisis situation and have to endure the trauma of being committed to a mental health facility under Florida’s Baker Act. In Hernando County, that decision is made by the school’s on-site school resource officer or a patrol officer answering a call.
A year-long investigation by the Tampa Bay Times chronicled the frequent use of the Baker Act in Hernando and other West Central Florida counties to handle disruptive students, its inappropriate use at times and several incidents of sexual abuse when children were taken to mental health crisis centers and sometimes placed with adults.
“It is our hope that these increased supports will result in a decreased need for involuntary hospitalizations, but I cannot say it will result in fewer students being Baker Acted,’’ said Jill Kolasa, the district’s director of student services, in an email. Children taken away under the Baker Act are screened and sometimes can go right home, she said. In severe cases, they may stay for 72 hours or longer.
The new measures may be having an effect: The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office reports it used the Baker Act on fewer children in the most recent semester — 57 — than in the previous four semesters.
An important early indicator of a crisis in the making is the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale. It’s an interview protocol that school social worker Nicole Rooney touts as an effective and reliable tool, considering that the national suicide rate among people 10 to 24 has jumped 56 percent in the past 10 years.
“The first five or six questions are the triage screener,’’ she said. “And that’s really where you determine, is this a student who’s having suicidal thoughts?’’
Kolasa said the tool was developed for people who aren’t licensed mental health professionals, so that anyone can be trained to administer it. The district started using the protocol in January of 2019. During the summer, the state Department of Education sent notice that all schools should have at least two members on staff trained to administer it.
“But we want as many as possible,’’ said Kolasa.
The district also has more professionals available to help children in need. It used state money allocated for mental health assistance to hire nine additional social workers. They work with teachers to develop classroom strategies and work with guidance counselors to develop support for specific students, Kolasa said. And they help with initiatives the administration wants to emphasize, she noted. “It could be suicide prevention. It could be kindness week.’’
On standby is the BayCare Behavioral Health Mobile Response Team, which started answering calls to Hernando schools last February. Summoned by a school resource officer or school administrator, the state-funded team of mental health counselors has been able to calm the students and avoid a Baker Act commitment in 85 percent of the cases it responded to in Hernando County, said team manager Jenine Martin-Literski. They are called in when a student is in crisis.
“That could mean aggressive behavior, disruptive behavior, suicidal thoughts, homicidal thoughts or expression,’’ she said.
The team goes through a lot of training, she said, “but really, the technique is to meet the child where they are at.
"If they are under a desk, we will ask them, ‘Hey, do you mind if we come and sit next to you?’ Or if they are crying. We’re trying to let them know who we are and what we’re doing every step of the way. And we’re patient with that. ‘When you’re ready, we’re here to talk with you. We want to help you through that.’ ”
They make the child an active part of the process of “safety planning,’’ as Martin-Literski calls it. “What is going to help you when you’re feeling that way? Who do you feel like going to talk to when you’re feeling that way?’’ They provide a list of coping skills that help them get through a crisis. And they do follow-ups, counseling families on resources available to help the child.
But some children are beyond that kind of help, said Gail Ryder, vice president of BayCare Behavioral Health, and the Baker Act has to be used.
“When that experience is totally necessary, it’s totally necessary,’’ she said. “They’ve gone a little too far, and now they’re unsafe.’’
While that decision is up to a law enforcement officer in Hernando schools, Kolasa said the district’s policy is to have school counselors or social workers assess children before they are taken away under the Baker Act.
“We do that assessment. We determine if they are a danger to themselves or others with that assessment, and then we notify the school resource officer. So that is our protocol,’’ Kolasa said.
When that isn’t done, Kolasa said, it could be because a school resource officer was on the scene when a student was in crisis and decided that the Baker Act was the appropriate measure.
The Times investigation found that, from 2013 to 2019, police reports on 100 randomly-selected Baker Act cases from Hernando County schools indicated that deputies consulted with school-based mental health professionals in fewer than two-thirds of cases.
Children in crisis is a growing phenomenon, said Kolasa. “We are seeing many more students with trauma.’’
She said it could be a multitude of factors — movies, social media, our culture nationally. And it could be something more direct, more personal, Rooney suggested.
“It could be food scarcity, living in transition off and on for a lot of years, loss of parents,’’ she said. “It could be a lot of things.’’
Times reporter Jack Evans contributed to this report.