A 360 Breakdown

Does Suite360 fulfill its intended purpose?

A+spotlight+on+mental+health+education+has+uncovered+faults+with+the+system+being+used+in+Palm+Beach+County.+

Jad Dargam

A spotlight on mental health education has uncovered faults with the system being used in Palm Beach County.

Jad Dargam, Website Manager

Every year, students in Palm Beach County are required to participate in a form of mental health education. In 2019, the Florida State Board of Education adopted Rule 6A-1.094124 which required every student, from grades six through twelve, go through mental health education for a minimum of five hours. Students from kindergarten through grade 12 also have to go through a child trafficking and sustained abuse lesson, as well. 

The School District of Palm Beach County uses Suite360 to be in compliance with the Board of Education’s mandate. Suite360 is a digital platform whose purpose is to help students who are going through mental health issues, or know someone that may need help or who are at risk, and provide the resources necessary.  

However, while the program does include important lessons, many students and teachers at Suncoast and around the school district are not seeing the benefits of the program. So, with mental health awareness taking a bigger spotlight in our public schools, a majority of students think that Suite360 is not meeting the increased needs of our community. 

Suite360’s logo as shown on Evolution Labs’ website. (Evolution Labs)

After the Parkland High School shooting, which showed the disastrous results of school districts not implementing or monitoring student mental health, the State of Florida and SDPBC acted to try and prevent another massacre. The Parkland shooting is why schools are required to have police officers on every campus, why we have behavioral health specialists and psychologists available at any moment, and why students are using Suite360. 

Students’ stress has reached a level where action is needed to prevent more deadly disasters. MedAlertHelp found that teenagers have a stress level of around 5.8 out of 10 during the school year, which coincides with around 70 percent of students being “often or always” stressed about schoolwork. “Untreated mental illness or delays in mental health support can cause a greater risk of dropping out, failing classes, being truant, and/or experiencing behavioral resulting in discipline referrals,” according to the Palm Beach Mental Health Allocation Plan. 

As has been acknowledged by our own school district, mental health awareness in our schools is important. In 2019, the school district paid Evolution Labs, the company that makes Suite360, $275,000 in order to obtain access to the program, which includes eight lessons for each grade level. The lessons cover a wide array of topics including suicide prevention, child trafficking, coping techniques and mental health illnesses. Each lesson includes videos, questions, true or false quizzes and real world examples of the issues that are covered. 

Palm Beach County is not alone. A screenshot of Evolution Labs’ website shows schools across the nation are using Suite360. (Evolution Labs)

On paper, Suite360 seems like it could have the ability to make great changes in our schools. The program could have been an eye opener to the millions of students in the United States going through mental health issues; however, it falls short in many regards. Students begin watching these lessons in middle school, but as students work their way through their educational journey, Suite360 does little to elaborate on their preexisting knowledge of mental health issues and other topics. 

The first issue with Suite360 is that lessons are basically identical between grade levels, so students will essentially be receiving the same information for seven years. This results in disinterested students who are tired of hearing the same baseline information that they were given in middle school. 

Amanda Del Ponte, Suncoast’s Suite360 coordinator said in regards to Suite360 that, “I’ve seen slight changes, but overall the messages are the same.” 

Katelynn Rabideau, a sophomore, said, “Mental health among teenagers is a rapidly growing issue and the way that Suite360 handles it is slightly outdated. At least in my experience, bullying is no longer a leading cause in mental health issues. […]  Mental health resources have not kept up with the growing pressure that school and emerging adulthood bring.”

In a poll conducted with students in Palm Beach County, 53 percent found that Suite360 was not beneficial to them. While the instructional material in the lessons themselves are a problem, the way that content is being delivered has also created issues that ripple throughout the student body. 

Lisa Rodrigues, the pre-IB school counselor, stated that, “the hope is that this training and this conversation, brings it to everyone’s awareness and is something we utilize daily.” Rodrigues is right, the material that is covered in Suite360 is a reminder to students that these issues do exist; however, students deserve more elaborate and informative mental health training that can actually encourage good mental health constantly. Surface level knowledge about mental health is not sufficient when, for many seniors, you’re almost an adult ready to enter college and the workforce. 

Another issue is that teachers have been forced to teach Suite360 lessons, even though this may not be the most effective way to deliver the sensitive content that is covered in Suite360. Evolution Labs’ website even admits to the problem that, “[…] most teachers are not trained to teach SEL. The results are overburdened teachers and an inconsistent delivery of messages.” The guidance department at Suncoast stated that in order to counteract these problems, students and teachers were given resources from Suite360 in order to guide them through the lessons. 

“I do think that mental health lessons would be more thoroughly, reliably and helpfully taught by mental health professionals,” Ashley Busse, an IB and AP English Literature teacher, said.

“[…] We want to be able to do it school wide at the same time and to avoid a large group setting, like an auditorium, because we also think that’s not the best way to do that,” stated Del Ponte as the reason why Suncoast chose to take the route of teacher-driven instruction. 

Rabideau said that in her experiences, “[…] Some teachers at Suncoast see Suite360 as an interruption and burden to their class rather than a necessary tool for their students.” And Rabideau is not alone in her complaints; the same poll showed that around 55 percent of students were not satisfied with the way Suite360 is being presented by teachers.  

While essentially, all students are being subjected to the same material, the delivery of the material by teachers determines the success of the Suite360 program. This is especially important for teachers to deliver Suite360 in a way that shows they care about the mental health of their students which can be done, especially when many list schoolwork and homework as one of the main reasons for their uptake in stress.

Tenth grader Beethi Akter agrees, “I think that this Suite360 is a bunch of bluff because spending just two days on mental health awareness is not enough considering that, in a school like Suncoast, mental health should be our top priority acknowledging the rigorous courses we have to take.”

Unfortunately, the school district has not been proactive enough to train all staff on Youth Mental Health First Aid, a program defined by the Florida Department of Education as a “evidence-based youth mental health awareness and assistance training program”  for school staff to be able to identify and help counteract mental health and substance use issues with students. 

In its 2021-2022 Mental Health Application, SDPBC reported that only 23 percent of its  employees were trained and certified in YMHFA. However, for the few teachers that were trained, some believe that the support they are receiving is enough to properly help students with mental health issues. 

The Palm Beach County School Board needs to set better standards for educating students regarding mental health. (Bruce Bennett/Palm Beach Post)

“[…] We knew the counselors were on standby for students who might need them, but there is very little in-depth training provided by the District on helping students with moderate to severe mental health issues,” Busse stated.

Around 83 percent of teachers said they would rather have someone with a background in mental health education to deliver Suite360 lessons. 

So, what is the better alternative? 

“Instead of forcing kids to sit through long presentations on information they have already seen, we could have conversations and more interactive lessons on these important topics,” Emerson Ferry, a sophomore, suggested. 

“It is preferred to get the class more engaged, to have student volunteers read, to stop at the questions and discuss in pairs or small groups to really think about what you’re learning and to present feedback with people that you’re comfortable with that you’ve had class with,” stated Del Ponte.

With this being said, the power to change our mental health education relies upon the leaders of education in both Palm Beach County and Florida. 

Pictured are some members of the Florida Board of Education and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. (FL Dept. of Education, WUFT)

To the Florida Board of Education:

1. Amend Rule 6A-1.094124 to change the language of Section 3a to require school districts to continuously deliver mental health education throughout the school year, rather than requiring only five hours of instruction. 

2. Create more stringent rules to describe how “the instruction for youth mental and emotional health” will advance each school year, as stated in Section 3b. 

3. Define “professional qualifications of the person delivering instruction,” as stated in Section 2c. 

Suite360 is NOT harmful, and actually, having the program implemented is a step in the right direction from not having any mental health education programs.  However, simply put, the call to step up and improve our informational programs for students in order to help them to develop into successful members of society needs to be answered. Suite360 and the limited amount of resources that accompany it may not have a powerful effect in Palm Beach County in order to reduce mental health issues affecting students.