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Editorial: I'm a Star Foundation teens want more focus on mental health issues facing students

Florida Times-Union - 1/23/2022

One by one, 30 principals walked to the front of the room at the first Duval County School Board meeting of 2022 to accept a banner to hang at their schools for achieving a "School of Excellence" designation in the 2020-21 school year.

The Florida State Board of Education honors schools that rank in the 80th percentile for school grade calculations for at least two of the last three consecutive years. It's not an easy feat to achieve, so cheering followed each school name called out.

More awards followed for outstanding teachers and counselors and even state championship swimmers and divers.

Then the tone in the room changed when several middle and high school students from the I'm a Star Foundation walked up to the podium to make a presentation of their own.

Last year, the students focused on helping those in their schools who were suffering from mental health challenges, exacerbated by the pandemic.

The students were there to thank educators for their support and remind them that many children their age continue to struggle. And they talked about the 1,000 tool kits they had created to provide to middle and high school therapists throughout Duval County.

Kennadi Larkins,15, a 9th-grade student at First Coast High School was the first of several I'm a Star leaders to address the school board.

"Last year, we picked four areas that were impacting students. One of those areas is mental health because as students, we knew that we were scared and needed help," she said. "I hope that our toolkits let kids know that they are not alone and that someone is always thinking about them."

Each turquoise "EmpowerMe" gift box displays a QR code linking to motivational messages from local STAR teens on YouTube. The toolkits also contain a journal, a motivational wristband, a pen, a "blessings jar" filled with motivational quotes and a small stuffed animal.

Other students at the meeting also shared their thoughts about mental health and thanked supporters of their efforts, including the Florida Times-Union, which hosted a Facebook Live Event for the organization of students ages 12 to 18, right before the school year started. Students presented gift box toolkits to Duval County Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene, board members, Chief of Schools Scott Schneider, and Director of Mental Health Katrina Taylor.

The students are working to empower their peers during the pandemic, said Betty Burner, founder of the I'm a Star Foundation.

"They're planning to share messages of hope and information on a podcast and youtube channel," Burney said. "The kids who are viewing it can talk back and respond. They want the kids to know that help is available and that somebody cares."

According to the CDC, from February to March 2021, suspected suicide attempt emergency room visits among girls 12 to 17 were 51 percent higher compared to the same period in 2019. For boys in the same age group during the same time frame, the rate was 3.7 percent higher versus 2019.

"The kids have continually said that students need to know that somebody cares about what's happening with their mental health during this pandemic," Burney said.

Katrina Taylor, director of mental health at the Duval County Public Schools, said she's proud of this student-led initiative.

"This is an example of our students rising to the challenge and owning the solution. Thanks to their initiative and hard work, we now have a new resource available to our students and school community and I know it will have a wonderful impact," Tay said. "I look forward to more courageous conversations with our students surrounding mental and emotional health issues and how we can work together to address needs and break down barriers."

It's not easy for most adults to talk about struggles with mental health challenges, so students speaking up on behalf of their peers should be commended. They want kids to understand, that it's ok not to be ok. And they're seeking solutions by encouraging students to reach out to a trusted adult, whether it's a teacher, coach, counselor or parent.

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