Malia Norris might not have prevented something as tragic as the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, four years ago, but it’s because of that tragedy that her position exists today.
Norris is the mental health counselor at A. Quinn Jones Center, a school for children with behavioral difficulties. She is the in-house therapist for the students.
But this position didn’t always exist.
Three weeks after the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14, 2018, the Florida Senate passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act. Its main goal was to prevent an atrocity like that from happening again. It allocated funds for schools to add additional staff to deal with students’ mental health. According to the Florida Department of Education, each school district receives a minimum of $100,000 a year.
Alachua County created Norris’ position with the money, along with a similar one at the Sidney Lanier Center, which is also an alternative school intended for students who have not been successful elsewhere. Students who come to A. Quinn are often ordered to do so by a court or are referred by their prior schools.
Norris was hired as the mental health counselor at A. Quinn Jones a little over three years ago. She believes she has had a positive impact on the students and the staff by reminding everyone to consider mental health when dealing with disciplinary problems.
“I do hear it in our teachers,” Norris said. “I think they’re starting to now think a little bit
differently about how they work with our students.”
Norris’s duties include having one-on-one sessions with students to discuss their behavior and home life. She has recurring meetings, as well as open-time sessions, for students to come in as they please.
Norris said she has seen a variety of issues with her students.
“Our students are challenged by emotional, behavioral, and learning disabilities, sometimes combined with trauma-related symptoms,” she said.
Cassidy Klein, a teacher at A. Quinn, values the program.
“Honestly, a lot of kids know that they need mental health services,” Klein said. “But if you try to get mental health services in Gainesville, you can be waiting forever or paying ridiculous amounts of money. So, the fact that Ms. Norris is here, I feel like a lot of kids view it as a huge asset.”
Though each school in the county has a school counselor, mental health counselors are only on-site at the two centers.
“The difference between her and our school counselor is that our school counselor is an
employee of the school,” Klein said. “[Norris’] role is a little different, where the parents have to give her permission for her to meet with their child.”
The students’ families are often involved in the conversations with Norris. She discusses past traumas and incidents in her meetings. She hopes that, by analyzing the root of the problem, students will be able to recognize and prevent poor future actions.
Norris’s approach identifies stressors and triggers thereby helping the students control their emotions.
“If you think about it, every bad, negative behavior has some sort of reason for it,” Klein said. “Every kid needs some sort of toolbox of strategies if they’re having issues.”
Klein worked at the school before Norris came. She said she has seen a change in the atmosphere since Norris’s position was implemented.
“As far as working on specific mental health support, our school counselor just doesn’t have the capacity to pull every kid out,” Klein said. “At our school now, every single kid is able to meet with her. If they want individual services, every kid can get that.”
Even though the school district has added employees and programs to increase mental health awareness, some see a need to do still more.
Norris and Klein both expressed their support for additional mental health services in the schools.
“I’d love to see more,” Norris said. “In this day and age, especially when I think about all the things happening, I think that we need to move forward with more mental health in place, more services, more opportunities, more training. That’s the only way that we’re going to heal as a society.”