Help for Troubled Students

September 18th, 2018

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo is Legislator of the Year after passing a bill to provide every child in Florida schools with access to mental health services

When State Senator Kathleen Passidomo was asked to chair a committee on education spending in Florida, she rounded up teachers and superintendents from around the state and asked one simple question: What is your greatest need?

She was expecting some of the usual answers—salary increases, a new football stadium, building improvements, updated classrooms, etc. But those weren’t the responses she heard.

“Without exception,” says Passidomo, “every single one of them said, ‘We have a mental health crisis in our schools, and we need help.’ We need funding for mental health.”

Passidomo and her team convinced the legislature to pass a bill for $79 million—about half of what was needed, but a very promising start—to dramatically improve the mental health system in Florida’s pre-K–12 public schools. As a result, Passidomo was recently named the 2018 Florida Behavioral Health Care Legislative Leader of the Year, awarded by the Florida Council for Community Mental Health (FCCMH).

Scott Burgess, President and CEO of David Lawrence Center who also serves on the FCCMH Board, presented Passidomo with the award at an August conference in Orlando.

“Senator Passidomo is such an incredibly appreciated champion across the state and most certainly by DLC and me,” said Burgess. “We are honored to partner with her in bringing more much-needed care to children, families and adults across our state.”

A grateful Passidomo said, “It’s an award that my appropriations committee should be receiving, frankly. I’m glad to know the hard work they did is recognized.”

The award, which hangs in Passidomo’s Naples office, includes a hand-drawn image of a heart by a teenage girl who received services at DLC. Passidomo said an inscription on the award describes that the heart represents how she has “a new lease on life, a new heart.”

The recognition comes for legislation that may not have passed were it not for unforeseen—and tragic—circumstances. The bill wasn’t getting much traction, and Passidomo was presenting her final bill, with all of its parameters, on the floor early in the afternoon of February 14. The bill seemed like it had stalled when suddenly, the room started buzzing—legislators anxiously looking at their phones, talking amongst themselves, some of them even leaving in a hurry.

There had been a mass shooting at Marjorie Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School across the state in Parkland, Flor. Seventeen students and staff members were killed, and another 17 injured. The shooter, Nikolas Cruz, had a history of mental illness and strange behavior.

The bill—Senate Bill 7026, Mental Health Assistance Allocation—quickly passed. Shortly thereafter, Governor Rick Scott stated he expected that each student in Florida has access to a mental health professional at school by the 2018-19 school year.

Passidomo, a Republican who represents the 28th district (which includes Naples and Collier County), says the bill helps to create “a statewide coordinated program for mental health. [School districts] need to create a plan and adhere to certain parameters, including partnering with a local mental health facility.”

She noted that DLC was already setting an excellent example by partnering with local schools, law enforcement, government, and other community organizations to address mental health.

“David Lawrence Center is a terrific community resource,” she said. “I’m proud to have them here. The entire community benefits from their presence. They’re shining stars.”

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