Miami nurses speak out about mental health and gun violence in schools

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Leyda Fiscella, a registered nurse with Community Health of South Florida through The Children’s Trust, takes a photo during a school safety and mental wellness conference at Ronald W. Reagan Doral High School, in Doral, Fla. on Wednesday, August 3, 2022.

Special for the Miami Herald

Shirley Plantin paced an auditorium with a microphone in her hand. A screen with pictures of children floated behind her.

Some were children, others teenagers. Some smiled, others frowned. Some were in black and white, others in color.

But all were young lives lost.

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Shirley Plantin speaks about gun violence at a school safety and mental wellness conference at Ronald W. Reagan Doral High School in Doral, Fla. on Wednesday, August 3, 2022. Plantin is the consultant in head of U-Turn Youth Consulting Firm. Grethel Aguila

“I want you to understand that these are not faces from Wisconsin,” Plantin said. “They’re not from Massachusetts. They’re not even from Orlando. They’re not from Broward County.

“It’s baby faces here in Miami-Dade.”

Hundreds of school health workers attended a professional development conference hosted by the Children’s Trust at Ronald W. Reagan Doral High School on Wednesday morning. The three-day conference, which will take place remotely on Thursday and Friday, will focus on mental health, gun violence prevention and school health.

Bringing nurses and mental health professionals into schools

It’s the first time since 2019 that the annual school health professionals conference has returned in person, said James Haj, CEO of Children’s Trust. The sessions are a refresher for professionals and an opportunity to network, foster relationships and explore resources.

The Children’s Trust is funding 146 clinics at 141 needy Miami-Dade schools, Haj said. The clinics, which are run through partnerships with hospitals like Nicklaus Children’s, are open during school hours for all school-aged children. Students can pursue medical treatment as well as their social, emotional, and mental wellness needs.

“If they get sick or there is a need, they come to the clinic to get all the services they need,” he said. “Their parents don’t have to pick them up. They can return to class and track instruction time.

The conference offers expert advice and provides feedback to school health staff, said Eduardo Barrios, a nurse who serves three Miami-Dade elementary schools for Nicklaus Children’s Hospital near South Miami. The information presented is relevant to Barrios’ work caring for underprivileged children. School nurses may notice problems even before a child’s family.

“So everything from dental work to needing a cast or getting glasses,” Barrios said. “It has a huge impact on [student] academic achievements.

This training and collaboration allows school health professionals to see the human holistically, said Lissette Collazo-Maza, a social worker who provides mental health services to 13 schools. Children from migrant families can rely on these services as many do not have insurance.

“They don’t have to go anywhere,” she said. “We are here. They can be at school and, at the same time, be taken care of physically and also mentally.

Miami-Dade Gun Violence Prevention

Miami loses a class of students a year, about 30 students, to gun violence, said Plantin, chief consultant for U-Turn Youth Consulting Firm. But school nurses, mental health professionals and educators can help change that.

Shooters are getting younger and younger, she says. And the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gun violence.

“We are screaming and screaming about the Uvalde shooting,” she said. “But we lose them every day. … Uvalde matters, but the community shootings that happen every day matter too.

Youth violence, she said, is a public health issue. Children are on the streets, earning more money than their parents legally do. And money often causes gun violence.

Plantin brought children to her and shared their vision of life. Many tell him they don’t have the luxury of living; they are just trying to survive.

“You are dealing with a generation of young people who do not love life and do not fear death,” she said.

She urged professionals to challenge their biases. Children from the poorest regions are not the only ones committing crimes. Affluent kids do it too, but they have the legal resources to get out of trouble that many black and brown kids don’t. Some people also justify gun violence by saying that people who get shot are doing bad things. But what bad things were the 6-year-olds shown on screen doing?

Protect children at school

Every Miami-Dade school has a sworn and trained police officer, said Maj. Joseph Bevilacqua of the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department.

“Miami-Dade County Public Schools are safer today than they have ever been before,” Bevilacqua said.

School police have taken action to prevent high-fatality incidents since before Parkland and Uvalde, he said. Some measures include:

  • Single entry points
  • Random metal detection
  • Locked classroom doors
  • Random explosions of guns and narcotics
  • Threat Assessment Teams
  • Active shooter lock drills
  • Train the police in the active intervention of shooters
  • Collaboration with school mental health professionals

All school cameras and GPS-tracked buses are monitored from command centers, Bevilacqua said. Police are also scouring social media and investigating any threats made. The threats are traced back before school starts the next morning.

Officers are trained to report an active shooter situation, even if they are alone. Bevilacqua gestured to a school resource officer at the back of the room.

“He’s going to identify the threat, even before the guy puts his gun down,” he said.

READ MORE: Gunshots rang out at a school in Coral Gables. It was just an exercise.

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A man takes a photo with his cell phone during a school safety and mental wellness conference at Ronald W. Reagan Doral High School in Doral, Fla. on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

More needs to be done to address gun violence, Plantin said. Miami-Dade is ahead of other counties, but schools need to make mental health a priority. School health professionals need to connect with children, empathize without condoning them, identify with them, and serve without expecting anything in return.

“When we don’t, the guns will,” she said. “Because the streets will gladly accept them.”

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