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BDS to implement mental health plan amid climbing Baker Act numbers

News Herald - 1/15/2020

Jan. 15--PANAMA CITY -- As the number of Baker Act students climbs to 161 for the 2019-2020 school year, Bay District Schools announced Monday the full implementation of a plan to give students five hours of mental health education each school year.

The five-hour requirement comes as the state's response to school shootings -- namely, the 2018 school shooting in Parkland which took 17 lives. However, school officials say the curriculum to educate students about their mental health couldn't come at a better time, following the local trauma left in the wake of Hurricane Michael.

"I think the timing of the rule definitely compliments everything that our students have been experiencing post-Hurricane Michael," said Director of Student Services Kara Mulkusky at Monday's press conference. "We're very grateful that Florida's First Lady Casey DeSantis values the importance of such topics and that they should be included during the school day so that our students are receiving a very well-rounded education -- not just academic content, but extremely important life skills directed around student wellness overall and student safety."

"If there was any time that it would be perfect to help support our students with their emotional recovery from Hurricane Michael, this is the perfect time," she added.

The additional five hours will not change the length of the school day.

The school district is putting to use Florida Department of Health's Freedom 180 -- a sexual risk avoidance program. The program's staff has infused its regular material with information related to mental health to soothe the state's requirement, as well as, further open the door for students to receive crucial attention to their mental needs.

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Parents of students in grades 6th through 12th recently received a letter notifying them of the new curriculum requirement.

"The new mental health mandate is a comprehensive health requirement, new state rules in effect for this school year, there includes several components including mental and emotional health awareness education, substance use and abuse prevention education, and child trafficking awareness education," Mulkusky said. "The rule that has this strict requirement is for the mental and emotional health education requirement."

As of Jan. 10, BDS reported 642 referrals for community care, which is mental health services outside of the the district's ability to provide, for this school year. Last school year ended with 962 of such referrals.

While BDS reported 39% of its staff had depression or anxiety stemming from Hurricane Michael months after the storm hit, the district has made efforts to educate its staff about mental health for students. Thus far this school year, 1,402 teachers and administrators have been trained in Youth Mental Health Aid.

FDOH Administrator Health Officer Sandon Speedling considers Freedom 180 as the "lucky" chosen agency to assist the district with implementing the mandate.

"We're just an eager and strong partner with Bay District Schools, we're standing together shoulder-to-shoulder to be able to provide services," Speedling said at the press conference. "We're the lucky agency that has the curriculum in place and we were able to compliment the curriculum that we had to help the Bay District Schools to provide this mandate."

Noting the curriculum includes face-to-face instruction as well as technology which will add up to 35 hours of education by high school graduation, the requirement is yet another piece to help students have a mental status that is healthy and aware.

Freedom 180 Senior Health Educator Sean Smith said the curriculum is interactive and the feedback from students is promising.

"At first they're not sure about it, they don't know what it is," Smith said. "But once we get into it, we make it fun and interactive for the students and they seem to really enjoy it."

"We make sure they know who to talk to if they need to talk about anything," he said.

For more information about Bay District Schools mental health programs and initiatives, go to BayK12.fl.us/mental-health.

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(c)2020 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)

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