The behavioral and #mentalhealth statistics of Polk County students are alarming, showing increases in arrests for disruptive and violent incidents at schools, #students committed to a #mentalhealth facility and #suicides.
BARTOW — The stories are shocking and heartbreaking — students who are hurting so deeply that they violently lash out at teachers and administrators, threaten to kill school resource officers and beat classmates so badly that videos of the incidents rapidly spread across the internet and make appearances on the nightly news.
And then there are the students who decide the pain is too great to bear any longer.
The behavioral and #mentalhealth statistics of Polk County students are alarming, showing increases in arrests for disruptive and violent incidents at schools, students committed to a mental health facility and, sadly, suicides.
For the past year, Polk County Public Schools officials have redesigned the district’s school discipline and student behavior response plan, including addressing the social-emotional learning needs of students while also providing supports for teachers and school personnel.
District officials gave a report to the Polk County School Board this month on its streamlined reporting, response and tracking systems.
“The catalyst for the plan was the collective voice of our school-based personnel — our teachers, paras, bus drivers, support staff, principals and assistant principals — in regard to their needs and concerns for school discipline and student behavior,” said Deputy Superintendent John Hill.
By the numbers
This school year, more than 150 calls have come in through early December, many from elementary schools:
Arrests for assaults on teachers
2019-20*: 26 (16 by ESE students)
2018-19: 64 (40 by ESE students)
Arrests for disrupting school function
Polk County: 106
Lake Wales: 2
Haines City: 27
Winter Haven: 23
Students Baker Acted from school
2019-20 (by October): 46
‒ Polk County Medical Examiner’s Office statistics show that at least 13 students have committed #suicide in the past four years.
‒ According to the #CentersforDiseaseControlandPrevention, the second-leading cause of death of children 10-19 years old in the U.S. is #suicide. Out of the 14,103 10- to 19-year-olds who died in 2017, 3,008 committed #suicide. The #suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 climbed 56% between 2007 and 2017.
*-Statistics through Dec. 9
Less than 1%
District officials say that while less than 1% of their 105,000 students have profound behavioral problems, their goal is to reduce their highly disruptive behavior, reinforce positive behaviors, teach replacement behaviors, and provide supports for students.
Kimberly Steinke, PCPS assistant superintendent for learning support, said the district started the school year with 113 cases already on record, the majority of whom were special education students with individualized education programs tailored to their learning or behavioral disability. Of those, 72 were in elementary school.
“We started the school year with 27 students already enrolled in our new impact intensive behavioral unit,” Steinke told the board referring to special schools for behaviorally challenged elementary school students. “We had 19 students who were already receiving on-site support in their schools.”
Based on that finding, Chief Academic Officer Michael Akes said the district is beginning to “look upstream” at pre-kindergarten students and helping them with their behavior.
School Board Vice Chairman Lynne Wilson blamed a shortchange of funding from the federal government to help the most vulnerable students and unfunded mandates from the state that tie up resources that could be spent on this issue.
“That really is the core,” Wilson said. “It’s incredibly bizarre that our legislators don’t understand that. You can’t expect us to meet all these needs without providing the resources to do so.”
New system in place
Since the start of the school year, more than 150 additional calls have come into the district’s Student Behavior Response Team, headed by Brett Butler, the district director of discipline. Butler then determines if it is a schoolwide problem, a classroom issue or an individual student who needs help. The issue will be reviewed within 24 to 48 hours and one of five district teams responds to work with the school, teacher or student. A school-based meeting will then be held and a plan developed, implemented and monitored.
The district’s behavior-response teams include a board-certified behavior analyst, behavior specialist, #mentalhealth facilitator, positive behavioral intervention and support facilitators, school psychologist, school social worker, academic behavior support teacher and registered behavior technician.
The team also instituted a new computer tracking system. Students receiving help are assigned a case number.
“We continue to track every action that is taken with them,” Steinke said. “If they have an IEP meeting and a behavior plan, we can pull up a student and know what the SBRT team has been doing to support that student.”
Help for parents
Several board members asked what is being done to help parents because many issues start at home.
“We talked about students and schools and leadership — nobody has said anything about the parents,” School Board member Kay Fields said.
“I noticed everything is being done toward the teacher — which I understand is the most important person in the room — but I hate to even say this, but maybe some kind of parenting classes like manners, protocol” should be implemented, said School Board member Sarah Fortney, who taught for more than 33 years. “It’s a disconnect to me. You’ve got old-school folks trying to do this up in there and new ones trying to deal.”
Hill and School Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd said they are looking for a way to support and educate parents.
“We have a couple of the hospitals here that are really starting to branch out into this, and we’re going to be partners at the table with them,” said Byrd, adding that Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center is one of the hospitals wanting to work with couples to help them be good parents.
Butler said when the Schools Behavior Response Team goes to the school, the parents are invited to the planning meeting to find out what can be done for that student.
“It’s hand-in-hand, usually right from the start or shortly thereafter,” Butler said.
Director of Behavioral and #MentalHealth Support Jim Maxwell said the most troubled students automatically have parent involvement.
“The parents are provided with a monthly progress report, how their student is doing and how close they are to completing the program,” Maxwell said.
Akes said some of the district’s barriers include the teacher shortage, which is also a state and national issue, and new teachers who are coming into the district without the training to deal with extreme behavior issues.
“A lot of our new hires that we get this time of year are non-education majors … and even if they did have an education background, they still are struggling with what do we do with difficult behavior,” Akes said, adding that colleges of education are having difficulty teaching classroom and student management in dealing with extreme behavioral issues.
“We know whenever teachers need help, we need to get into those classrooms with them,” Akes said.
As part of the school discipline and student behavior response plan, the district provided behavioral training to more than 400 teachers and school and district staff members last summer. The district plans to expand professional development again this summer, including workshops and side-by-side coaching.
Fortney said that in her more than 33 years as a science teacher she has seen behavior issues increase to unmanageable levels, even for veteran teachers.
“Back in the day, I might have had three kids all day that required special attention,” Fortney said. “And now you’ve got three in every row and that’s just overwhelming when you’re looking at seat 26 and we’re talking about class size again.”
At every School Board meeting, Fortney calls for a #mentalhealthprofessional to be placed in all 150 schools in the district. More than 1,420 people have signed a Bartow High School student’s petition to have at least two qualified #mentalhealthcounselors on every school campus.
But all that comes with a price tag.
District finance officials say hiring five counselors, 103 #mentalhealth counselors/facilitators, 101 social workers and 89 school psychologists would cost the district nearly $21 million.
However, Fortney argues that the price for not doing it is too high. Polk County Medical Examiner’s Office statistics show that at least 13 students have committed #suicide in the past four years. According to the #CentersforDiseaseControlandPrevention, the second-leading cause of death of children 10-19 years old in the U.S. is #suicide. Out of the 14,103 10- to 19-year-olds who died in 2017, 3,008 committed #suicide. The CDC also recently reported that the #suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 climbed 56% between 2007 and 2017.
Welcome to the “next chapter” of my life… being a voice and an advocate for #mentalhealthawarenessandsuicideprevention, especially pertaining to our younger generation of students and student-athletes.
Getting men to speak up and reach out for help and assistance is one of my passions. Us men need to not suffer in silence or drown our sorrows in alcohol, hang out at bars and strip joints, or get involved with drug use.
Having gone through a recent bout of #depression and #suicidalthoughts myself, I realize now, that I can make a huge difference in the lives of so many by sharing my story, and by sharing various resources I come across as I work in this space. #http://bit.ly/JamesMentalHealthArticle
“Those are the ones that succeeded — what about the ones that attempted? Do we even keep that statistic?” Fortney asked, adding that she lost one of her students to #suicide several years ago. “I can vouch 110% for not being trained to see signs with my student — he was there one day and not the next. And I felt like I was in tune with my students.”