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Florida considers school chaplains amid growing concerns over kids' mental health

People taken to facilities involuntarily under the Baker Act must be examined by physicians or clinical psychologists, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families.
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People taken to facilities involuntarily under the Baker Act must be examined by physicians or clinical psychologists, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families.

The kids are not okay.

The issue has dominated conversations in the Florida legislature this year as lawmakers seek a myriad of ways to address growing mental health concerns around children. One idea they’ve had is to allow chaplains—people of religious faith—to come into schools to provide mentorship and counseling.

The proposal is backed by Rep. Stan McClain, R-Ocala, who recently defended it on the chamber floor.

"Our children are in crisis," he said. "We agree parents need help. We agree there are a lot of needs, spiritual needs, that people could meet.” 

The bill gained bipartisan approval, though not without concerns from Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Broward, who worried about the lack of requirements placed on chaplains that want to work in schools.

“This is a person with possibly, just a high school diploma and no mental health experience," she said during floor debate over the bill.

The proposal has no requirements other than background checks for the chaplains. It’s voluntary for school districts and they can lay out other parameters for chaplains to meet. For districts that do want those services, they have to allow parents to opt out, and post a list of the chaplains along with their religious affiliations. The chaplains work would be in addition to the counseling services districts already provide.

Support for the bill does not break down neatly on party lines and a number of Democrats voted for the measure in the House.

“Everyone has a feeling about whether or not bringing faith into school is the right thing to do," said Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, "Some of our Democrats strongly feel that’s a good thing. I think that many of us just think that there should be some parameters and guardrails around what that looks like.”   

The House democratic caucus did NOT take an official position on the bill.

The opinions of chaplains and Christian groups has been overwhelmingly positive. Several chaplains have voiced support for the bill as its made its way through the process and see it as a solution to the problems plaguing schools—violence, shootings poor mental health, waning academic performance, and a general breakdown in what the Christian Family Coalition’s John Labriola says is overall morality.

“We’ve seen that the problem that exists is because of the push toward secularization that began decades ago—that is, basically, trying to push to remove God from every aspect of the public sphere, including public schools. And you cannot deny the results of that have been a disaster for our society, our nation and our kids in schools," Labriola testified before a legislative committee recently.

The measure is now before the full Florida Senate, which will have final say.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories here.
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