Florida Politics

Universities ask Florida to spend more on mental health, campus security

Florida International University police officer Sonia Meneses, left, chats with FIU students Colin Lugo, center, and Christian Colevas on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015 at FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus. For the second consecutive year, Florida’s public university system is requesting additional funding for more police officers and campus counseling resources. The Legislature ignored the system’s request for 2016-17.
Florida International University police officer Sonia Meneses, left, chats with FIU students Colin Lugo, center, and Christian Colevas on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015 at FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus. For the second consecutive year, Florida’s public university system is requesting additional funding for more police officers and campus counseling resources. The Legislature ignored the system’s request for 2016-17. mhalper@miamiherald.com

After the Florida Legislature failed to act on similar budget requests for this year, state university officials are once again asking for money to increase staffing levels and beef up resources for campus police forces and student counseling centers at Florida’s 12 public universities.

The public university system’s Board of Governors wants lawmakers to designate an extra $28.5 million for those efforts, $8 million more than the unfulfilled request they’d made for the current 2016-17 budget year.

But rather than asking for all the money at once, as they did for this year, officials plan to ask the Legislature to spread the dollars over two years — giving the universities time to hire more qualified police officers and counselors.

While meeting in Sarasota this week, the Board of Governors emphasized that additional dollars for mental health services and campus security is among their foremost priorities for the 2017-18 budget, which lawmakers will craft next spring.

Data show Florida’s university police forces and campus counseling centers are understaffed, officials have been saying for more than a year now.

Understaffed counseling centers, in particular, mean students dealing with issues like stress, anxiety or depression can face longer wait times or be forced to seek help through off-campus facilities — which could deter them from seeking help at all, said Christy England-Siegerdt, the university system’s associate vice chancellor for academic policy and research.

“These students are suffering and we need to give them the tools to survive and thrive ... and it appears we’re not doing that,” Board of Governors member Darlene Jordan said.

For the 2016 session, the university system asked lawmakers to provide $6.2 million to add 61 staff positions at campus counseling centers statewide. It wasn’t funded, and with little progress made in the past year, university officials are now increasing that ask to $14.5 million across the next two years.

The money would pay for 137 new counseling positions statewide, with the University of South Florida in Tampa due to receive the most (25 positions). Florida International University in Miami would get nine additional positions, based on the university system’s budget request.

Meanwhile, the 12 universities are also renewing their prior request for $14 million to hire 143 more police officers and to pay for other campus security measures — about a 25 percent increase over current staffing and funding levels, said Tim Jones, the university system’s vice chancellor for finance and administration.

Statewide, campus police departments have 550 sworn officers and are funded with about $60 million, Jones said. Adding more officers would bring the universities up to a national standard of one officer for every 600 students, he said.

Figures for current staffing and budget levels for the counseling centers weren’t immediately available.

Lawmakers in the 2016 session didn’t openly discuss the universities’ funding requests for these issues — even as they debated a controversial, but ultimately unsuccessful, proposal that would have allowed concealed guns on public college and university campuses. Lawmakers said universities could fund additional security and mental health efforts through their discretionary dollars, rather than through a special allocation from the Legislature.

A request by the state colleges to add $74 million over three years to their campus security measures also went unconsidered.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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