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Duval Schools Wants To Address Mental Health With New Position

Duval County Public Schools

A new privately-funded position aims to tackle the mounting issue of mental health in Duval Schools.

The Duval County School Board will vote on a recommendation for a School Behavior Health Services Director to oversee several in-school mental health service sites next month.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti brought the new position before the board Tuesday.

“I think when you look at Duval County Public Schools,  part of our challenge is that before you even get into the academic work, you have to overcome a lot of the social, emotional, behavioral issues that are being manifested by children,” Vitti said.

According to a recent Gallup Student Poll of about 40,000 fifth through 12th graders, about a third of students surveyed about their well-being were classified as “struggling” or “suffering.”

The Behavior Health Services position is being funded through a grant from the Chartrand Foundation, and the recommendation is  based on a study by the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Mental Health.

Researchers from the school conducted the study of the district between November 2013 and January 2014.

“It showed clearly that [...] the best way to see a return on investment and to have an impact on children is to move more of the mental health behavioral services to the school site,” Vitti said.

The district has partnered with outside agencies, including United Way, to serve students throughout the county. Currently, the district has services in eight sites that serve about 87 schools, primarily around Ribault and Jackson high schools. The plan over the next two years would take those services as well as the psychologists and behavior specialists they employ, and place them within eight schools in the Ribault feeder pattern. The new director would help streamline that process, Vitti said.

“We’re fragmented internally and we’re a bit fragmented externally [...] and I do think we do need ownership from one individual to start shepherding and aligning all the work,” he said.

That new hire would serve as a liaison between the district programs and service partners like United Way, he said.

The Chartrand Foundation would fund the position over the next three years. For the first year, the grant would cover the full amount of the new administrators annual salary and benefits, which come to about $116,000. The following year, the grant would cover 80 percent of the cost and 60 percent the third year. The district would pay the difference.

The plan Vitti said is to pilot the new services model in the 2015-2016 year.

During Tuesday’s workshop, School Board Chairwoman asked about the services available to students that fall outside the Ribault feeder pattern.

“It seems a little weak on the West part, on the Southwest part, as far as services that are offered,” she said.

Dana Kriznar, who heads the district’s Department of Strategic Planning, said students and teachers could access services by dialing 2-1-1.

“It’s a community resource for referral services,” she said.

Couch said information about resources for teachers and students in other parts of the district should be more heavily promoted.

“I think we just need to do a better job of communicating what we have access to,” she said.

Vitti said once the in-school sites were established in the Ribault feeder pattern, the district plans to apply for additional grants to expand to other schools throughout the district.

“We’ll really go deep with those students in those neighborhoods and then, leverage that as a proof point for what we can really do,” he said.

The board will vote on whether or not to approve the new behavioral services position next month.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.