Digital town hall offers insight on how district approaches the issue

Mental health was the topic of Sarasota County Schools’ digital town hall, which offered the public a chance to hear about some of the district’s initiatives in that area on Thursday evening.

With the help of local nonprofits and funding from the state after passage of the sweeping Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act earlier this year, the district has made mental health programs a priority in schools through additional on-site mental health counselors and classroom programs that aim to foster respect and kindness.

“Mental illness is more common than heart disease, lung disease and cancer put together,” said Laura Kingsley, the district’s chief academic officer. “We all know what happens if we don’t care about mental health issues — it has a devastating impact in the community.”

After the state provided the district with about $1 million in additional funding for mental health programs this year, 14 elementary schools saw the appointment of a full-time mental health counselor on their campuses.

Kristie Skoglund, the chief operating officer for the Florida Center for Early Childhood, the organization responsible for providing some of the counselors, said incorporating mental health care into schools from a young age can help teachers identify behavioral problems that may originate from something the child is experiencing.

“Behavior isn’t just behavior — behavior has a source,” Skoglund said. “There’s always a reason — whether it’s organic, developmental or environmental — but there’s something going on and we are experts in kind of figuring that out.”

But mental health counselors in schools are not an entirely new addition. Prior to the start of this year, some schools had on-site mental health counselors to work with students, partially funded by nonprofits such as the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. The nonprofit's director of community investment, Kirsten Russell, said that has already made a marked impact in schools. In some classes, students will "self-identify," she said, and ask to see someone for guidance.

But the district's supervisor of student services, Debra Giacolone, said conversations are also needed at the parent level, especially on topics like bullying at school.

"Parents need to be willing to have those conversations with their children. They need to be able to acknowledge that bullying is taking place and teach their students what they can do," Giacolone said.

A replay of the town hall can be viewed at facebook.com/sarasotaschools.