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

By: - July 11, 2018 10:00 am
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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?”

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Diane Rado
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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