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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

ACPS targets mental health after clear backpack mandate reversal

ACPS will have informational sessions on behavioral expectations and graduation requirements discussions

<p>A sign in front of the Alachua County Public Schools district office building is seen Sunday, June 6, 2021.</p>

A sign in front of the Alachua County Public Schools district office building is seen Sunday, June 6, 2021.

Layla Fuller felt uncomfortable when Alachua County Public Schools announced a clear backpack mandate for the 2022-2023 school year. She worried her peers would see the menstrual products she concealed with her opaque bag. 

The reversal of this mandate confirmed the 16-year-old Buchholz High School student’s assumption about how the district jumped to extremes without considering potential backlash.  

Fuller hopes the new mental health training, one part of the district's multi-pronged approach to address gun violence, is more effective than the clear backpack mandate, which was reversed a day after students, parents and teachers took to the internet to express their disapproval. However, her experience watching a full schoolday’s worth of required mental health videos has been less than positive.

“It doesn't help,” she said. “Most kids are actually annoyed by it, at least from my perspective.”

ACPS is also working with a multidisciplinary team to establish a behavior support plan and address mental health crises, ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson said. This summer, ACPS trained about 2,700 employees in youth mental health, and Johnson expects more employees will complete this training before the school year begins. 

Local high and middle schools will host two informational sessions for sixth and ninth graders to discuss topics from behavioral expectations to graduation requirements Thursday.

ACPS will also host a Family Empowerment Summit to provide families with tips on how to support their children’s mental health Aug. 8 at Trinity United Methodist Church at 5 p.m.

Anne Brown, CEO of the Cook Center for Human Connection, will speak at the event, and ACPS may implement one-on-one coaching for families that experience issues with their children’s behavior through the center’s partnership with 

Sarah Rockwell, a School Board District 3 candidate, said the county needs more community collaboration to combat severed connections. She hopes these events will focus on building relationships with children and not punishment.

In May, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office arrested a Fort Clarke Middle Schooler for bringing a loaded gun to school after another student alerted a teacher. Strong student-teacher relationships allowed the student to feel comfortable reporting the incident and thus prevented it from turning into a school shooting, Rockwell said. 

Law enforcement recommended clear backpacks as a response to the Robb Elementary shooting in May and recent community youth violence, according to an ACPS press release. It was intended to discourage students from bringing anything illegal to school, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Art Forgey said. 

A clear backpack mandate is more akin to security theater, Anahied Rayzian, a 30-year-old Alachua County parent and resident, said. These measures create the illusion of safety instead of promoting legitimate security. 

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Rayzian has a 4-year-old daughter who has not started school yet, but she does not trust law enforcement to protect children.

The issue of gun violence is being tackled from two sides, she said. One side supports mental health resources while ignoring legislation, and the other side advocates for stricter gun laws, leaving public infrastructure aside. She called this “swiss cheese problem-solving.” Instead, the federal and state governments need to pass stricter gun laws. 

Angela Casteel, a 46-year-old Alachua County parent, said clear backpacks give school staff a window into what students have going on, but a long-term solution would be for parents to be involved in their kids' lives.

Now that the mandate is no longer in place, Casteel said the school board is not taking enough steps towards solving the problem.

ACPS expects metal detectors will be brought up in discussions with the community and law enforcement, Johnson said, but the district would need to consider the practicality of installing these in schools with over 2,000 students, she said.

Not only do metal detectors affect the flow of student traffic, but there are also the issues of cost and staffing, Johnson said. 

It is possible clear backpacks will be brought back to the drawing board, but for now, mental health awareness and relationship-building remains the foremost focus.

Contact Fernando at Follow him on Twitter @fernfigue.

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Fernando Figueroa

Fern is a junior journalism and sustainability studies major. He previously reported for the University and Metro desks. Now, he covers the environmental beat on the Enterprise desk. When he's not reporting, you can find him dancing to house music at Barcade or taking photos on his Olympus.

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