State Rep. Bobby DuBose mentored a Parkland student who killed himself just over a year after a gunman opened fire at his school and took 17 lives.
Calvin Desir, 16, was the type of kid who would help his mother by ironing her nursing scrubs each night so she’d be ready for work, he said.
DuBose took Desir to Tallahassee to show him the state Capitol as part of a mentoring program. Desir wanted to become an engineer, but instead, his life was cut short.
“Trauma and mental health is real,” DuBose, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said just moments after delivering an emotional speech on the House floor. “Too many times, we throw stigma on it. We have to do more.”
The apparent suicides of Desir and another student survivor of the Parkland school shooting in a one-week span are prompting calls from state lawmakers for a boost in mental health funding for schools.
Also bringing attention to the issue is the death of a 17-year-old student who shot and killed herself at an Orlando-area high school. The 49-year-old parent of a victim of the Sandy Hook school shooting also died of suicide, highlighting the lasting trauma inflicted by mass shootings.
The issue has quickly moved to the top of legislative agenda with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis convening a mental health listening session at the governor’s mansion on Thursday.
The Florida House observed a moment of silence to remember Desir, along with 19-year-old Stoneman Douglas graduate Sydney Aiello and Sandy Hook parent Jeremy Richman.
The focus on mental illness and suicide is a welcome change from some previous budget years, said Jane Johnson, director of advocacy and outreach for the Florida Council for Community Mental Health.
“They are taking this issue very seriously,” she said. “It’s very refreshing for us.”
Florida lags in mental health funding
Florida has consistently ranked near the bottom on per-person spending on mental health and education.
After last year’s Parkland school shooting that left 17 dead, state lawmakers made some effort to change that. They devoted $69 million to fund school-based mental health care services. Broward and Palm Beach counties both poured millions of local dollars into hiring school psychologists, counselors and social workers through voter-approved tax increases.
But some say even more needs to be done. While much of the focus was on identifying potentially violent students, little attention was paid to preventing suicides, the third leading cause of death for teenagers in Florida.
The Florida Senate wants to allocate another $31 million for the program, but the House budget proposal keeps the funding level the same.
DeSantis’ proposed budget calls for a $10 million increase.
During his listening session with agency heads, DeSantis stressed that just throwing money at the issue isn’t the solution.
“We kind of beat ourselves on the chest and say, ‘Oh I’ve increased mental health [funding] therefore I care about it,’” DeSantis said. “But it’s like how is that money being worked, how is it being delivered, and is it being delivered in an effective way.”
More needs to be done, psychologists say
Florida took a step in the right direction last year, but the state is still not doing enough to meet the mental health needs of students, said Philip Lazarus, director of the school psychology program at Florida International University.
“Florida is lagging behind, and we have known that for decades,” he said.
For Lazarus, the issue is about money and a system that has been chronically underfunded for years.
After last year’s shooting, Broward County opened five locations for the Stoneman Douglas community to receive free mental health support, including a “resiliency center” in Parkland open seven days a week school officials said.
The district also hired 60 additional counselors, social workers and behavior specialists to help students across the district.
That response has come under scrutiny. Kimberly Krawczyk, a math teacher who was in the building where the shooting occurred, wrote in a column that the district relied on elementary school counselors with no background in trauma counseling in the weeks after the shooting.
“What’s more, the counselors cycled in and out of the school on short stints, so students couldn’t even expect to talk to the same person twice,” she wrote for the education news site The 74. “Soon, they stopped seeking help.”
The district admits it needs to spend more to meet the recommended staffing levels for mental health workers, a bar few districts reach across the country.