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Who’s going to fund school anti-violence program?


Last February, one day after the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Indian River County Hospital District trustees asked the director of the Mental Health Association, a service they fund, what they could do together to help prevent similar events.

The MHA came back to the Hospital District in August with a three-tiered proposal: a violence prevention program for the county’s ninth graders, an intervention component if a student shows warning signs of violent intentions, and a protocol to deal with the aftermath of so-called critical events.

But after hearing the MHA proposal, five of the seven Hospital District trustees chose to punt the program to the School Board.

“I just think the funding should come from the School Board,” said Trustee Tracey Zudans. Four others on the seven-member Hospital Board appeared to agree.

“The School Board’s a mess,” countered District Board chairwoman Marybeth Cunningham, shaking her head in frustration. It was she and fellow trustee Ann Marie McCrystal who had given the directive to the MHA earlier this year to develop a program.

“While the School Board is in such flux – with three people leaving and three new people coming on board – I was hoping to fund this for the first year and then see if the School Board would fund it,” Cunningham said.

Trustees raised several questions about funding for the program during the August meeting, according to Cunningham, asking first, whether the School Board was even aware of the program. If they are, are they not funding it because there are no funds available, or because they were told the Hospital District would probably fund it?

“Or are they not funding because they are not interested in the program? I think depending on the answer [to these questions], we may or may not consider this again,” said Cunningham.

It has since been learned that neither the School Board nor Superintendent Mark Rendell were ever officially presented with the proposed $76,000 program, and instead saw only a broader mental health program for schools, none of which is funded by the school board.  The school district has long relied on community organizations to fund such programs.

With that knowledge in hand, Hospital District trustees to have yet another discussion on the violence prevention program this week, on Wednesday, Sept. 26, a day after details of the proposed takeover of Indian River Medical Center by the Cleveland Clinic were set for release.

If Cleveland Clinic assumes a portion of indigent care expenses at the hospital, which currently eat up a sizeable portion of the Hospital District’s budget, that could free up money for the school program – though board support remains uncertain.

Hospital District Trustee Tracy Zudans first questioned whether the school violence prevention program fit with the mission of the Hospital District at the July District Chairman’s Meeting, after MHA’s executive director Dr. Robert Brugnoli and clinical director Jeanne Shepherd outlined what they had in mind.

“It’s a curriculum-based program in a school environment, and we’re the Hospital District. I understand that it’s a mental health issue, but I need more information to see how it’s the District’s responsibility,” Zudans said in July.

In her mind, the School Board, which levies taxes just as the Hospital District does, should be responsible for the mental health of students on their watch.

MHA officials included the School District’s director of student services, Lillian Torres-Martinez, EdD, in the development of the proposed program. But Torres-Martinez told the Hospital District board last week she had not discussed the program with the School Board, which approves school district expenditures.

So far, she said, Indian River County has chosen to spend some $500,000 allocated to it by the state for student mental health – part of a post-Parkland bill that included putting law enforcement officers in every school – by hiring four full-time social workers plus a part-timer, and a mental health services coordinator.

Currently, the lone School District psychologist is preoccupied with exceptional education students. The MHA program would supplement the work of the new social workers, as well as fulfill a requirement in the bill that community groups collaborate on the school violence issue, Torres-Martinez said.

The MHA’s funding request for the ninth-grade program included $58,000 for a curriculum called LifeSkills that would include manuals for teachers and 1,200 ninth-graders at Vero Beach High School and Sebastian River High School, plus a trained facilitator.

LifeSkills, which deals with issues beyond violence, including drug abuse and bullying, is already in place in elementary and middle school, and is funded through the Substance Awareness Center. Torres-Martinez said high school administrators have repeatedly asked that the program be extended to their schools.