One year after Parkland massacre, SWFL students get candid about mental health

Reporter: Sara Girard
Published: Updated:

One Year Later

High school students Joshua, Aaron and Ariana say memories of Parkland are constantly on their mind.

FILE – In this Feb. 14, 2018 file photo. students are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

“I was nervous, I was sad, I was angry at someone that could take 17 lives,” said Aaron Torres, a senior at Immokalee. “He could’ve went to that school and come to our school next if he had the time, if he wanted to.”

While the shooting didn’t happen at their school, the tragedy hit very close to home, both emotionally and physically. Parkland is roughly 90 minutes from Immokalee.

“People didn’t come to school. A lot of my friends didn’t come back till a week later, three days later you know,” said Ariana Gallegos, a sophomore at Immokalee High.

“I was nervous, I was sad, I was angry at someone that could take 17 lives.” -Aaron Torres, Immokalee High School senior

“Like, how could someone do something like that?” said Immokalee senior Joshua Joseph, recalling that day.

Torres said he can’t imagine the pain of the students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“The pain will never be gone, those kids will never hear a fire alarm the same way, they are traumatized,” Torres said.

They now see the world, and their classmates, through a different lens.

“I think that kind of just opened our eyes to that we can’t be afraid anymore because we have to be prepared,” Gallegos said.

Prepared, she meant, for the next school shooting.

What’s Changed?

“I feel, in earlier years, mental illness or social wellness, it wasn’t a big topic,” Torres said.

That changed after Parkland, and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act , where Collier County Schools and every Florida district got a cut of nearly $70 million for mental health initiatives.

Collier County School superintendent Dr. Kamela Patton.

PDF: See your school district’s proposed mental health funding

“It’s limited funds, but how do you get the most of those funds,” Collier County Schools Superintendent Dr. Kamela Patton said. “We just added on new layers.”

Patton said Collier schools aren’t new to mental health care. They have used Social Emotional Learning (SEL) tactics for years, helping kids work on relationship building and coping skills.

But Immokalee students said the initiatives created this school year have been the most significant.

“The only time you heard the words ‘mental illness’ was when you were talking about a crazy person,” Gallegos said. “And I think it created that notion that people with mental illnesses can’t be normal.”

That’s all changed.

This academic year, Collier County added five major SEL programs to every school:

  1. New Student 30/60 Day Check-In
  2. Handle with Care
  3. Buddy Bench (elementary level) or We Dine Together (secondary level)
  4. Principal-led SEL videos (during morning announcements) and Teacher-facilitated discussions
  5. Student Voice survey (grades 3-12)

Superintendent Patton said these programs have made a big difference, particularly in reference to the Buddy Bench and We Dine Together programs, where students are designated as ambassadors to talk to and sit with students at recess and lunch.

“Sitting alone 180 days for up to 40 minutes a day is a long time,” Patton said. “You can almost see when you’ve had some of these tragedies happen, those kids were probably the kids sitting alone.”

The “Buddy Bench” program in Collier County is designed specifically for elementary schools, encouraging kids to interact with others who seem lonely, distressed or just need a playmate at recess.

Mental Health Mandates

After the introduction of S.B. 7026 in March of last year, every school district had to create a mental health plan for the 2018-2019 school year.

As a result, all Southwest Florida districts have begun Mental Health First Aid Training for school personnel, improved their partnerships with local mental health facilities, and created or expanded their mental health and threat assessment teams.

David Lawrence Center

In fall 2018, the Lee County School District partnered with SalusCare, the largest mental health agency in the county, for counseling and substance abuse services. The district also allocated for a full-time mental health counselor at the Success Academy.

The Charlotte County School District expanded its 24-year partnership with Charlotte Behavioral Health Services, increasing psychiatric consultations and allowing for a therapist to serve all students in Alternative Programs and ESE Center School.

MORE: Charlotte County rejects Guardian Program, wants funds for mental health instead

In addition to the new district-wide SEL programs, Collier County schools are continuing their collaboration with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Collier County and David Lawrence Mental Health Center, among others.

This school year, Lee and Charlotte school districts were able to assign each of their high schools a full-time social worker. Collier was able to assign a full-time psychologist to each high school and select middle schools.

MORE: Read your district’s entire proposed mental health plan

Districts agree, the biggest help to improving mental health in schools has been adding more mental health professionals.

According to their mental health plans:

  • Collier allocated funds to hire 7 school psychologists and 8 social workers.
  • Lee allocated funds to hire 4 school psychologists and 10 social workers.
  • Charlotte allocated funds to hire 1 school psychologists and 4 social workers.

Schools Need More Help

Joseph, Gallegos and Torres explained what’s helped them the most has simply been the access to adults. They say they appreciate having more adults around who will reach out when they see a change in behavior.

School psychologists Rebecca Marazon and Natasha Gorman say they hope to build on the momentum, but admit they need more help.

“We just need the people and the time to be able to provide more,” said Marazon, a psychologist for Charlotte County schools. “More small groups, more individual counseling, even more in the moment crisis.”

Gorman said there is a nationwide shortage of school psychologists, making it hard to find and hire the right people.

“There’s just so much need, but there’s just not enough time in the day to help all these kids,” said Gorman, psychologist for Lee County schools.

In the meantime, Collier County K-8 Counselor Coordinator Steve McFadden said students are taking on a role all their own.

“What we’re seeing are kids who are taking the time to notice each other, reach out to each other, include each other,” McFadden said. “And it mitigates a lot of problems.”

Recommended Ratios

Below are recommendations from national organizations for the optimal amount of school personnel to student ratios.

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recommends 1 social worker to every 250-400 students.

American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends 1 school counselor to every 250 students.

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends 1 school psychologist to every 500-700 students.

WINK News calculated what the ratios are in Southwest Florida school districts.

(NOTE: Ratios are rounded to reflect current numbers from early January 2019, however the student population can change affecting totals. The 2018-2019 numbers include allocated positions that might not be filled yet. Ratios exclude charter and special schools.)

Charlotte County:


Counselor to Student Ratio: 1 to 350

Psychologist to Student Ratio: 1 to 1600

Social Worker to Student Ratio: 1 to 2100


Counselor to Student Ratio: 1 to 350

Psychologist to Student Ratio: 1 to 1500

Social Worker to Student Ratio: 1 to 1300

Collier County:


Counselor to Student Ratio: 1 to 350

Psychologist to Student Ratio: 1 to 1800


Counselor to Student Ratio: 1 to 300

Psychologist to Student Ratio: 1 to 1400

Social Worker to Student Ratio: 1 to 4900

Lee County:


Counselor to Student Ratio: 1 to 500

Psychologist to Student Ratio: 1 to 3000

Social Worker to Student Ratio: 1 to 2100


Counselor to Student Ratio: 1 to 500

Psychologist to Student Ratio: 1 to 2500

Social Worker to Student Ratio: 1 to 1700

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