Mental health and homelessness issues rise in Charlotte County schools

By NANCY J. SEMON, The Daily Sun Staff Writer, Feb 14, 2022.

PORT CHARLOTTE — Mental health issues and homelessness among students are increasing in Charlotte County, school officials said last week.

During a Charlotte County School Board workshop, a school psychologist and the director of intervention and drop-out prevention told board members about steps the district is taking to address the problems.

School psychologist Rebecca Marazon and social worker Chantal Phillips revealed that about 25% of Charlotte County schools students received school-based mental health interventions, services or assistance during the 2020-2021 school year.

They cited the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and other studies which declared a “National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health.”

According to the academy, rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness and suicidality have soared for young people.

The Florida Department of Education in the 2018-2019 school year required each school district to complete a plan of action to increase mental health services plus outcome and expenditure data in order to receive an allocation.

Marazon and Phillips’ first goal is to decrease school-based mental health staff-to-student ratios by increasing the number of certified school-based mental health staff members by four school social workers — a 25% increase.

They also plan to add three school psychologists, an increase of 24% by the end of the 2021-2022 school year.

Other goals in their plan:

  • Increase training and have all staff trained and certified in youth mental health first aid within the next three to five years.
  • Train all school-based threat assessment team members for the 2022-2023 school year.
  • Provide yearly mental health education to students in grades 6-12, and substance use and abuse education to students in grades K-12.
  • Increase the number of students receiving school and community based mental health interventions by 3% — an additional 91 students.

Chronically absent refers to those missing 10% or greater of the total number of days enrolled. For the 2021-2022 school year, the rates were 32% for elementary school students; 30% for middle schoolers; and 31% for high school students.

Marazon’s and Phillips’ data revealed another problem: a significant increase in homeless students.

For the first semester in 2018-2019, there were 247 homeless students, and for the first semester in the 2021-2022 school year, there were 310 homeless students.

Later that day during the regular school board meeting, member Cara Reynolds noted there are currently 372 homeless students.

Board member Bob Segur said the number has spiked since the beginning of the year. He cited rising rent prices as a factor.

School district spokesperson Mike Riley later explained that “homeless” could mean the student is sharing a home with another, sleeping on someone’s couch, or living in a vehicle.

“The stereotype of homelessness has changed,” he said.

During the School Board meeting, the board voted to enter into an agreement with Jesus Loves You Ministry (JLYM), which will provide case management and temporary shelter for students and their families identified as experiencing homelessness.

The nonprofit organization’s case manager would be available for qualifying families during the school day and times deemed necessary by the school board.

Services began on Feb. 1 and will continue through Sept. 30, 2024 under terms of the agreement.

The school district would pay costs and fees monthly to JLYM in the amount of $3,293 plus 100% of funds spent by the organization on temporary shelter, with shelter costs not to exceed $74,770 for the term of the agreement.

Superintendent Steve Dionisio during the meeting announced Charlotte County was one of 33 counties receiving a first-time grant under America’s Rescue Plan — Homeless Children and Youth Project (editor: this bill was signed by President Biden in March 2021).  The county’s grant totals $198,201 for the 2023-2024 school year, he said.

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