Florida’s pattern is underfunding school psychologists and resource officers

Coral Springs Police Officer Brian Gasper, a school resource officer at Coral Springs Charter School, watches as Summer BreakSpot camper, Jayden Boodram, takes a basketball shot on July 19, 2016.
Coral Springs Police Officer Brian Gasper, a school resource officer at Coral Springs Charter School, watches as Summer BreakSpot camper, Jayden Boodram, takes a basketball shot on July 19, 2016.

Just two days after the Parkland massacre, a couple of high school girls were injured by a drive-by shooting outside Middleton High School in Tampa.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, visited the school shortly after to see what he could do. He said he was shocked to learn the school’s 1,600 students had only one psychologist, who worked only three days a week.

“It’s virtually nonexistent what school districts are doing to help the mental health of our students,” Rouson said.

Middleton’s situation is not uncommon in Florida, where school mental health programs have been chronically underfunded and short-staffed for decades. Yet Florida’s leaders are pointing to this same depleted system, as well as relying on cash-starved programs for resource officers, counselors and social workers, as a way to treat and identify students who pose possible threats.

To make good on that, they’ll have to make up for lost ground.

There is an average of one school psychologist for every 1,983 students in the state, according to 2016 data from the Florida Association of School Psychologists. The nationally recommended ratio is 500 to 700 students per psychologist.

“What we need are adequately staffed schools,” said Donna Berghauser, the president of the Florida Association of School Psychologists. “When you have enough people who can do their jobs that’s the start of it.”

Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie said Tuesday the mental health support in Broward is “not sufficient.”

“Caseloads are high,” he said. “I think we should double the number of counselors, social workers, psychologists and mental health workers that we have in our school system. We won’t get there overnight, but we should have a plan over three to five years that we can get there.”

Plans to increase the number of armed school resource officers must overcome another large deficit.

When teachers returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for the first time since the massacre, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie called for more resources and support for educators — but drew the line at arming them.

Gov. Rick Scott, on Friday, called for there to be one in every school, with the goal of one officer per every 1,000 students by the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. Yet there are now a mere 1,518 total officers in Florida’s more than 4,000 schools.

According to 2015-16 statewide data, Miami-Dade has the third-highest number of students per school resource officer in the state, at 3,310 kids for each officer. Broward, on the other hand, is better than the state average at 1,682 students per officer.

Al Palacio, president of the Fraternal Order of Police for the Miami-Dade Schools Police, said those numbers present practical challenges on campuses because one person can’t feasibly watch every area at all times, especially at larger schools.

“Every school is a microcosm of society, so every school becomes a city,” he said. “If you have one officer being asked to patrol an entire city, it can be challenging.”

“There is a long way to go,” said Commander Dale Tharp of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, the spokesman for the Florida Association of School Resource Officers. He was a campus officer for 11 years. “We need to keep people here. We’re losing people to other places for higher salaries.”

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, made it her mission early in the legislative session to lobby for more funding for schools’ mental health programs. She said they could throw billions of dollars at the issue of mental health and still find unmet needs, but she sees this as an important beginning for the Legislature.

“We haven’t put enough resources into mental health issues,” she said. “And look what happens. We have him [the Parkland shooter], we have Pulse, all these shootings all over because something happened to these kids when they were little to turn them into what they became.”

More than 150 teachers crammed into the Tamarac headquarters of the Broward Teachers Union for an emergency meeting to provide emotional guidance and support.

Her bill has since been incorporated into the Legislature’s massive plan in response to the Parkland shooting. Although the Legislature hasn’t named a specific dollar figure yet, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is leading the Senate side of the plan, said about $100 million will be set aside just for mental health programs in schools.

But hypothetically, if all of the Legislature’s proposed $100 million went solely to salaries of only school psychologists, it would still not be enough to get Florida’s student-to-staff ratio within the recommended guidelines.

The number of mental health professionals serving students — which includes psychologists, counselors and social workers — varies wildly by district and even by school. Florida has even fewer school social workers than psychologists, while counselors have the best student-to-staff ratio at 485 students per professional.

“Just because there is a psychologist at the school, their role in those individual schools can vary significantly,” Berghauser said, adding that Hillsborough County, which has a relatively good student-to-staff ratio, still has a large number of vacancies. “I’m assigned to one school but I’ve been attending meetings at a neighboring middle school simply because there’s no one that’s there.”

Florida is not alone in its shortage of school psychologists — in fact, there’s a national shortage of these personnel. Which means competitive salaries are crucial.

The salaries for school psychologists are also dramatically different based on district, but the state average of about $59,000 is comparable to many states, Berghauser said.

About $266 million of Scott’s $500 million plan would go toward mental health counselors. The governor’s office has said it will offer salaries of $70,245 to counselors with the goal of 1 to 750 ratio for mental health personnel.

Mental health professionals are optimistic at the possibility of increased funding, which they say will benefit all students by increasing access to professional help. But more generally, they caution against seeing it as a silver bullet.

“I don’t want to say having more mental health in schools is definitely going to prevent another school shooting, but it’s one part of a complex solution to making sure we address gun violence,” said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, a lobbyist for the National Association of School Psychologists in Washington. “Not trying to conflate mental illness and violent tendencies, but you have someone who is desperate or looking to lash out in some way, if it’s incredibly easy for them to get weapons, that’s a problem, too.”

Local police departments or sheriff’s offices, who usually fund at least part of school resource officers’ salaries, are similarly overburdened with budgetary constraints and the need for more people, said Tharp, of the Florida Association of School Resource Officers.

“If you look at most agencies, they can’t afford to hire the officers they need to hire,” he said, adding that rural areas with smaller budgets have it especially hard.

Although neither the governor’s office nor the Legislature have yet highlighted specified specific dollar amounts to be dedicated toward hiring more school resource officers, both have said it’s a top priority.

“I’m going to do everything I can to make sure we have enough law enforcement at every school,” Scott said, rejecting the Trump-backed notion that the state should allow teachers to be armed.

School resource officer salaries vary from $30,000 to $65,000 depending on the area, Tharp said — plus each officer also requires a car, uniform and mandatory training multiple times per year.

Still, Tharp said some much-needed funding could help his department offer higher salaries to keep officers longer and increase their manpower.

“Everybody is always looking to see if this money would be well-spent,” he said. “This is our future. These are our kids.”

This story was updated to include comments from the Broward County superintendent about mental health resources.

Miami Herald reporter Kyra Gurney contributed to this report.

Contact Emily L. Mahoney at Follow @mahoneysthename.

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