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Education

Sarasota Sees Shortage In Mental Health Staff At K-12 Schools

woman wearing a blue mask speaks at a school board workshop
Screenshot: Sarasota County School Board
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Deb Giacovone, director of student health services in Sarasota County, spoke about the need for more student mental health services at a recent school board workshop.

More than 10,000 students — about 12% of the district — have mental health needs that go unmet because of staff shortages.

When it comes national recommendations for the number of mental health therapists in K-12 schools, Sarasota County has only about half as many psychologists and social workers as it needs.

"We are down by 50 psychologists. We are down by 70 school counselors. We are down by 150 school social workers," Superintendent Brennan Asplen said at a school board workshop on Tuesday.

A fact sheet shows that national mental health groups recommend twice the staffing level that exists in Sarasota County
SCREENSHOT: Sarasota School Board
A fact sheet shows that national mental health groups recommend twice the staffing level that exists in Sarasota County

Asplen praised school staff workers for the added work they've been doing to help students, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sarasota County has received $1.5 million in state funding for mental health services for students, but school leaders said it wasn’t enough to fill the district’s growing needs.

"Our needs grew exponentially because of COVID,” Asplen said, as he vowed to work on ways to address the issue in next year's budget.

Board members said money from local foundations has helped, but a county-level infusion of cash is needed.

Deb Giacolone, director of student services, said the problem is particularly apparent at high schools.

"Right now, our elementary schools and our middle schools have access — most of them have a full-time mental health therapist on site. Our high schools do not," she told the board.

Chief academic officer Laura Kingsley said the district has made great strides, helping kids where they can, but they need more staff.

"There still are 12% of our children that have unmet mental health needs," Kingsley said. That equates to more than 10,000 thousand students in Sarasota County.

A powerpoint slide shows the state of Florida gives Sarasota $1.5 million for mental health
SCREENSHOT: Sarasota School Board
The state of Florida gives Sarasota $1.5 million for mental health

School board member Tom Edwards said the staff shortage means children who need mental health services often have to wait, anywhere from hours to days.

"We have a serious issue as it relates to kids in the queue to get these services," he said.

According to Kingsley, it’s highly unlikely that the district could come up with the money to pay hundreds more staff members.

“It would take 270 additional staff to meet the recommendations by the national organizations for school psychologists, school counselors, and school social workers,” she said in an email to WUSF.

“At $84,000 for an average salary, it would be unreasonable and unrealistic to have any expectation of meeting these standards at this time. However, any additional staff who provide direct services to our students/families and help support our teachers would be greatly appreciated.”

For instance, just hiring six mental health therapists to bridge the gaps at area high schools would be a start, she said.

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