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Pasco schools' mental health research could help identify risks

The goal is to get kids the attention they need before it affects their future, and possibly the students around them as well.

PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — With so much focus on students and mental health these days, the Pasco County School District is teaming up with the University of South Florida for what could be groundbreaking research.

Starting this year and for the next three years, a handful of schools will start screening students - grading their mental health – with the goal of getting kids the attention they need before it affects their future, and possibly the students around them as well.

“They can use that knowledge to recognize some of the risks in their classrooms and get kids help earlier,” said Nate von der Embse, a USF psychology professor and researcher leading the program.

The screenings are funded by a government grant which will last three years. This year it will involve students at Bayonet Point, Crews Lake and R.B. Stewart Middle Schools.

Three different schools will participate in each of the two following years.

Researchers say about 20 percent of kids will have some kind of mental health issue during the course of their academic career. But only one-fifth of those students will receive timely intervention services.

“Those of us that have been in education for quite a while have seen this as a need,” said Lori Cline, a sixth-grade teacher at Bayonet Point. “I’m just thrilled that we are addressing this as a district. Taking it seriously."

After the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida lawmakers told school districts they need to do a better job gauging students’ mental health.

While those behind this program don’t care to link behavioral issues with violence, their hope is to identify and address those issues early on.

“That being said, we know that kids that that are emotionally well and are behaviorally well are going to be the ones that have the highest rate of achieving long-term success,” said von der Embse.

“We see through visible behaviors on the outside,” said Bayonet Point Assistant Principal Melissa Caruso, “ But some of those indicators and characteristics that we learned about are things that you would only see on the inside.”

Teachers and administrators will enter that data on a website where USF grad students will then access to identify risk factors so they can get kids the counseling they need.

“It’s a lot harder to break the habit than it is to develop good habits at an early age,” said teacher James Newton.

Parents will be given the chance to sign a waiver if they prefer to opt out of the program.

But administrators want parents to know this is not a diagnostic tool. They describe it as more of a way to take a student’s temperature before - in their words - surgery is needed.

“On average we see a five- to seven-year delay in those services,” said von der Embse. “So, this is a way to get the kids up earlier and really prevent some of those long-term problems from happening.”

“To have the tools to be able to do it properly - to be able to do it more in an academic way and consistently, it’s going to be really great,” said Cline. “Very beneficial.”

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