MENTAL HEALTH PLAN UNVEILED – School board unveils three-point plan

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The Monroe County School Board has unveiled its three-pronged approach to increasing the mental health services it offers to Keys students. It calls for adding two social workers to the district payroll, expanding the Guidance Care Center’s involvement that will provide three more life counselors, and hiring a Medicaid specialist who would seek reimbursement on the district’s behalf for services rendered.

Superintendent Mark Porter said the state Department of Education has requested responses to a checklist.

“The simplicity of what we are doing in Monroe County will fully comply with the request,” he said of the three-page plan presented to the board on June 26.

The social workers would work directly for the district and augment the two already on staff and earn salaries of about $60,000 a year plus benefits. One would be based in the Upper Keys and one in the Middle Keys. The four social workers would rotate between schools.

Calling it an oversimplification of the social workers’ roles, School Superintendent Mark Porter said, “The difference between guidance counselors and social workers is that the guidance counselors do work inside the school, while social workers do work outside the school,” he said. “They engage with families and understand the deep-rooted challenges our students face.”

In addition to the social workers, the district also employs four school psychologists, one full- and one part-time behavior specialist, and 20 school guidance counselors for a total of almost 30 mental health providers. However, the school guidance counselors devote most of the work week to academic concerns, Porter said in May when the mental health plan was forming in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety bill. He also said the school psychologists work primarily with the Exceptional Student Education department to assess students from a perspective of academic need.  

The Guidance Care Center is contracting for an additional $68,000 annually on top of the $90,000 it already earns for serving the school district. It will be providing three more life skills coaches, in addition to the two that are already serving the district.

The third item on the agenda is to hire a Medicaid billing specialist. Porter said that once upon a time the district had someone who performed these duties. No specific salary was mentioned for that position. By billing Medicaid, Porter said the district would recoup more than it would spend on the new salary, although no other details were available.

When dealing with students with mental health issues, the children are divided into three groups — Tiers 1, 2 and 3 — with Tier 3 being the most in need. Porter said support would be available on a weekly or more frequent basis for students deemed in Tier 2 and daily for Tier 3. The plan calls for classroom teachers to incorporate mental and substance abuse prevention curriculum for all students at least weekly. And the annual back-to-school day workshop for all county teachers will be devoted to the mental health plan. 

Porter, along with partners from the Guidance Care Clinic and AHEC, also described low-cost programs that could also help, like Apple a Day for children in Kindergarten through fourth grade, Teen Intervene (capitalize) for middle-schoolers and an alcohol literacy challenge for older students. AHEC’s Michael Cunningham said he hoped to commit a recently acquired $100,00 grant to mental health services for Keys students. Cunningham said AHEC has three staffers, including himself, who can teach an eight-hour course.

“It’s an eight-hour certification to teach how to deal with youth and adult mental health,” he said. “It’s not about offering treatment or counseling advice, it’s that first line. The certified person will have the skills and tools to address that and get them a referral if needed.”

In addition to the Guidance Care Center and AHEC, the district intends to partner with everyone from local law enforcement to the federal Department of Justice. 

During the 2017-2018 school year, 318 students in the Keys were screened for referral services. Eighty-nine of those were referred for service, and eighty-five received it.

At the meeting on June 26, the school board passed the new one-year trial program of the alcohol and drug testing policy 4-0, although Monroe County School Board member Mindy Conn was absent.

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