School has now started in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. All over South Florida, there has been relentless attention paid to school security and so much talk about cops on campus and upgraded surveillance camera systems.
However, there isn't as much talk about mental health services, even though everyone agrees it's better to prevent a tragedy instead of responding to one.
Broward County Public Schools is in the midst of hiring 50 new mental health counselors, psychologists, and social workers. Miami-Dade County Public Schools created a new Department of Mental Health Services, which is overseeing new programs such as the EDGE class.
EDGE is an acronym for Empowerment Driven to Grow and Engage. The county is testing it in nine middle schools, including West Miami Middle School.
EDGE is designed as an outlet for kids to talk about their feelings, get help if they need it, and much more.
"They learn about bullying prevention, they learn about intervention, so it's a whole curriculum that helps them feel better about themselves," said Katyna Martin, the principal at West Miami Middle.
The class isn't just about making students feel more confident and ready for school, it's designed to uncover potentially destructive issues and to prevent problems in the classroom.
The class is mandatory for every student in the nine pilot schools, which is part of the district's Middle School Redesign initiative. EDGE includes a teacher and a counselor working together, and it covers social and emotional learning, teamwork exercises, and one-on-one mentoring time.
"In this class, you can let out what you're feeling, problems that are going on with you," said Maria Garcia-Amaro, an eighth-grader.
"And it helps you with life, learning, in that class," added classmate Christopher Moreno.
Sometimes, kids have things going on in their lives which they don't share with adults. EDGE is trying to change that.
"Children want to be heard, and the school is where we have the captive audience for them to come and let us know what's going on in their life," Martin said.
The head of the Department of Mental Health Services, assistant superintendent Sally Alayon, said students in middle school are at an age when they're going through rapid changes. It's the perfect time to reach them, so all teachers are being trained in youth mental health first aid.
"To be able to identify those early warning signs and those look-fors when working with students," Alayon said.
She sees this effort as essential for molding emotionally healthy kids and for school security.
"We believe that prevention is the key, if we can get the right programs and services into the schools for our students and staff to share with the students and staff to share with the students then we believe that we are ahead of the game," Alayon said.
And there's an added bonus: the kids love the class.