Mental health provider that evaluated Nikolas Cruz is picked to service charter schools

Florida’s largest charter school membership organization announced Wednesday that it is partnering with Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s former mental health care provider to render services to schools.

Broward County’s Henderson Behavioral Health will provide mental health assessments, diagnoses, interventions, treatment and recovery services to students in need at member schools of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, according to a news release. Training will also be offered to school staff for a $25 fee.

Charter schools are privately run but funded using taxpayer dollars. Three out of every four operating charter schools in Florida — about 500 schools — belong to the consortium. The consortium’s news release mentions that additional mental health funding and mandatory mental health plans for schools came as a result of legislation passed after “murders and injuries of students” at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland on Feb. 14.

Reached Thursday, Henderson CEO Steven Ronik said there were several inaccuracies with the consortium’s press release. While the consortium did reach out to Henderson to provide services to member charter schools, Ronik said there is no contract or money changing hands between Henderson and the consortium.

“I think it’s great that they reached out to us,” Ronik said. “I give them credit.”

Schools would refer students with needs to Henderson, which would then evaluate the student for appropriate services. Services wouldn’t be free to students, another inaccuracy Ronik pointed out. The student’s health insurance or Medicaid would be billed or families could pay out of pocket based on a sliding fee scale.

“It’s school-by-school, kid-by-kid,” he said.

Ronik said Henderson already works with “a lot” of schools, including public, private and charter in Broward and Palm Beach counties, but did not know how many. He also said he was “not an expert” on the mental health requirements in the Stoneman Douglas law.

Contrary to the consortium’s release, Ronik also said Henderson would not identify and refer charter schools outside of its coverage area to community-based mental health services providers.

Henderson has been criticized for its handling of Cruz, who was evaluated at least three times in September and October of 2016 by members of a Henderson crisis team. After a suicide assessment was conducted, Henderson’s team determined committing Cruz under the Baker Act was not warranted.

Had Cruz been involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment, he may have been prevented from obtaining weapons to carry out the deadliest school shooting in Florida’s history.

The private, not-for-profit healthcare provider was served with a wrongful death lawsuit by Andrew Pollack, the father of Meadow Pollack, who was among those killed that day.

Gary Bitfield, a spokesman for the charter school consortium, wrote in an email Thursday that information published in the press release came from an internal alert shared with member charter schools and that Henderson did not dispute the facts.

Options for mental health services are limited, Bitfield wrote, “however, leaders of the Consortium have confidence in Henderson Behavioral Health based on decades of excellent service to several of its member schools.”

The consortium’s website lists several South Florida charter school officials as members of its board of directors. Katrina Wilson-Davis, who helped launch Florida’s first charter school in Liberty City, serves as vice president. Fernando Zulueta, president of the Miami-based charter school management company Academica, is listed as treasurer.

Through the Stoneman Douglas act, the Florida Legislature created a mental health allocation assistance fund of $69 million to dole out to school districts based on students enrolled to establish or expand school-based mental health care. Miami-Dade received $7.8 million, of which $1.5 million will go to charter schools, and Broward received $6 million.

Miami Herald staff writer Carol Marbin Miller contributed to this report.

Contact Colleen Wright at 305-376-3003 and @Colleen_Wright.