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By Robert Waldner
Photos by Kate Gardiner
The recent tragedy in Parkland, Florida, being so close to home and so fresh in our minds, has left our community with an increased concern for the safety of our own children. However, long before this tragic event, two organizations understood the growing concerns for youth mental health and school safety in St. Johns County and found ways to help to address the problem.
In March of 2015, the St. Johns County School District joined with St. Augustine Youth Services (a local non-profit organization) to launch a Mobile Crisis Response Team. The launch resulted from the realization that there was an increasing need to provide students, families, and school staff with more effective mental health resources. Schuyler Siefker, CEO of SAYS, explains, “Any child-serving agency in the county can call us and we will send out a mental health counselor to assess a student deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.” Prior to the MCRT, most crisis situations resulted in “Baker Acting,” in which students would be taken involuntarily by a law enforcement officer to a mental health facility for assessment. “Our goal,” says Siefker, “is to divert hospitalization if possible and provide more effective, immediate and long-term mental health services to students. The MCRT has been able to divert 79 to 84% of Baker Acts in the county, and has provided youth with complete wrap-around care, ensuring the success of St. Johns County children struggling with mental illness.”
Kyle Dresback and Kelly Battell have played a role in the positive impacts of the MCRT from the school district side. Dresback, the Associate Superintendent of Student Support Services says, “It has been extremely helpful to have mental health professionals work with students rather than involving law enforcement because of the students’ increased comfort level.” Director of Student Services Kelly Battell explains, “Our social workers create support plans with students, parents, and school staff which are in effect for six months. During that time, school district personnel make frequent followups.” On behalf of the MCRT’s overwhelming success, Battell says, “We have seen far more calls to the Crisis Team than Baker Acts.”
Unfortunately, as a state funded program, the MCRT has fallen victim to budget cuts. “We used to employ three full-time mental health counselors, a registered nurse, and a case manager. We now have only two counselors (one full-time) and we no longer have access to a registered nurse,” states Siefker. The cutbacks strike close to State Representative Cyndi Stevenson’s heart. Representing Florida’s 17th District, which covers northern and Central St. Johns County, St. Augustine, and St. Augustine Beach, Stevenson has worked tirelessly to secure more funding for these valuable programs. “Kids are showing a lot of these stress these days,” she says. Addressing her governmental role, Stevenson elaborates, “We are asking for more funding for mental health crisis teams. I expect more services to help more children in this year’s budget.” Embodying the objectives she’s working towards, Stevenson asserts, “It is important to make personal connections every day. Because of Parkland, I have re-adjusted my focus on people. We all have a basic need for compassion. We need to show our youth that we care.”