Rush job on school safety law causes mental-health conundrum for families, no help from state

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In the rushed, traumatic days following the February shootings at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, lawmakers scrambled to approve broad gun reforms and new laws to make schools safe.

But quick legislation doesn’t always equate to good legislation, says Kenneth Trump, a well-known school security expert and consultant who has testified before Congress.

Case in point: Lawmakers placed a little-noticed provision in the school safety law that has now become a conundrum for families. It requires that students – at the time of initial school registration — disclose if they’ve been referred for mental health services. (Parents and guardians will typically fill out and sign the registration.)

Trump has been in the school safety field for more than 30 years, and he’s never heard of such a requirement in any state.

Florida is now in uncharted territory in figuring out what exactly families are supposed to tell schools, and what schools plan to do with the mental health information. The requirement in the law provides few details and little instruction, and the Florida Department of Education has offered no guidance to districts since the law was enacted March 9.

“Decisions on this are made locally,”agency spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said.

That leaves families asking questions, and many vented their frustration following publication of Florida Phoenix’s July 11 story about the mental health registration requirement.

Families are asking: 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 totesting? What about teen depression?

One reader wrote: “This is an invasion of privacy, pure and simple.”

Another, said, “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!”

Alisa LaPolt, executive director of the Florida office of the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI), said her office has been getting many emails on the mental health registration requirement, part of a plethora of documents and data needed to register a child for school.

The alliance has been working with its affiliates and board members to decide how to approach the situation, LaPolt said.  “How do we accomplish what the school needs and balance the rights of privacy for families?”

One option is for lawmakers to make changes or even eliminate the requirement. Or, the Department of Education could create rules that would guide districts on how to best handle the mental health component in the registration process.

“This is too important of an issue to be ignored by the Department of Education,” LaPolt said.

Katie Betta, deputy chief of staff on communications for the office of Senate President, said it is possible that the school safety law in general could be amended after recommendations from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission and feedback from school officials and taxpayers.

“We are aware of the concern that’s out there,” said Betta, talking broadly about the school safety law.

The mental health provision in the law was relatively obscure, first showing up in a state House version of the school safety legislation in late February. The Senate’s own bill did not include the mental health language. In the end, the two sides crafted the final legislation, and included the mental health provision.

“This is one of the fastest-moving pieces of state legislation on school safety I’ve ever seen,” said Kenneth Trump, the school security expert and president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.

He said the mental health requirement at school registration “flies in the face of other health privacy standards we have, like (the federal law) HIPAA, and the student privacy (federal law) FERPA.”

Trump said he understands schools would have concerns about students who have serious behavioral and mental health issues, particularly after 17 students and staff were killed in Parkland by a shooter who had a long history of anger and behavioral issues.

But the requirement to disclose student’s mental health treatments at school registration time can open the door for misinterpretation and potential legal and ethical problems, according to Trump.

It’s not out the realm for parents to just say no to disclosing mental health information.

“My answer would be no,” Trump said. “Deny me and I’d be more than happy to be the test case.”

 

 

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.

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