Stigmatizing kids? New law forces families to disclose student’s mental health treatment

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Registering a student for public school involves submitting everything from proof of immunizations, health exams and birth certificates to details about gender, race, emergency contacts and more.

But the newest registration requirement this upcoming school year is a little-noticed provision that is now drawing concern, confusion and criticism as administrators grapple with Florida’s new school safety law.

That law says that each student – at the time of initial school registration – must disclose if they’ve been referred for mental health services. Parents and guardians will typically fill out and sign the registration forms.

But with few details and instruction in the law, parents and educators are now in a quandary: How much information should be reported? What kind of mental health issues would be included? What if a student has ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) or anxiety-related testing? What about teen depression? What happens if a parent refuses to disclose information? Will a student be blocked from entering school?

No matter what, “This perpetuates the stigma,” said Alisa LaPolt, executive director of the Florida office of the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI).

“It would immediately label the child as a problem student because he or she had mental health treatment, and it actually deters parents to get treatment for kids because they don’t want kids to be labeled,” LaPolt said.

The registration requirements stem from the grim shootings in February at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and staff were killed. The school safety legislation approved in March includes initiatives to help students with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Accused shooter Nikolas Cruz had behavioral and anger issues dating back to preschool, according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission that is holding meetings this week.

Put in context, the mental health registration requirement is part of other information that must be disclosed at registration, such as “previous school expulsions, arrests resulting in a charge, juvenile justice actions, and referrals to mental health services…,” according to the law.

Jennifer Thomsen is a director at the Colorado-based Education Commission of the States, which tracks education policy and legislation. At this point, she’s not aware of a mental health registration elsewhere in the country.

LaPolt remembers seeing the mental health provision added to the school safety law earlier this year.

“I tried to fight that. I brought it to the attention of (legislative) leadership. It was ignored. I said, this was going to problematic.”

Now, school districts are on their own in interpreting the mental health registration requirement and even elaborating on what must be disclosed.

In Miami-Dade, the district’s school registration form asks: “Has the student ever been referred to mental health services?” Parents check yes or no. If the answer is yes, the form says: “Please list each and every service.”

Orange County public schools’ registration form also requires more detail, asking parent to list the dates for mental health services.

Pasco County schools official Wayne Bertsch says the district has many questions about how the mental health requirement will play out.

Educators are wondering about “what’s not enough but what’s too much,” to report, said Bertsch, the district’s communications and government relations liaison.

Once the information is provided, who has access to it? Would the child’s classroom teachers be aware of the mental health disclosure? That’s not clear, Bertsch said.

And in the worst-case scenario, he said, “What if something (mental health information) slips out? And the student has now been Scarlet-lettered?”

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Not only that, but who will review these forms and where will the data reside? I’m sure there was no funding provided for professional oversight!

  2. I agree with Rachel- inapprpriate and a complete invasion of privacy. As is stated in the article, there are too many issues not clarified. If my child was in a crisis, i.e.. a possible danger to self or others, certainly, I’d consult and meet with school staff, after meeting with other mental health professionals. I would not automatically answer these questions.

  3. This law sends the message that seeking mental health assistance will mark you for life as different and a possible danger to yourself or your fellow human beings. How horrible! When many groups are working so hard to remove the stigma. Asking people to be open about how they are working to be in recovery and dealing with their mental illness as you would with diabetes, epilepsy or any other invisible illness. It is clear that the legislators need to have extensive education in understanding mental illnesses. Maybe then they would put more resources into programs for helping parent, children, teens, and young adults seeking treatment. Those resources are far to scarce in Florida!!

  4. I think this violates HIPPA laws, also kids will be treated different from day one before anything has a chance to go wrong, schools will have made their minds up about what sort of person they are, that they are a threat, when most never will be. It will punish students for seeking help. It will further stigmatization and it will criminalize mental illness in the eyes of many. These kids need support, not persecution. Its more than invasion of privacy, its infringement on civil rights and mental health parity. No where else are people required to disclose their health care treatment. In high school I needed to be in a self paced environment for math because I am severely learning disabled and couldn’t keep up with the class at the pace they were going, they stuck me in what is called the AB (Adaptive Behavior) room, which is where they stick the students with severe behavior problems but is also self-paced. I had to have an ARD and an IEP so all of my teachers knew I was in the AB room but it didn’t matter that I had never had any problem behaviors I was watched like a hawk and treated like I could become a behavioral problem at any moment. In 6th-8th I was in and out of hospitals for depression, and someone told everyone at the school where I had been via a post it note on a door which all my classmates read, this kind of a law just gives permission for teachers and schools to treat students with mental health problems in a negative manner.

  5. Wow that was odd. I just ԝrote an really llong comment but
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