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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

LGBTQ advocates have questions about Florida's chaplain bill

The bill would allow chaplains to act as school counselors in K-12 schools.

A bill awaiting Governor Ron DeSantis’ signature, would allow chaplains to act as school counselors in Florida K-12 schools. But some LGBTQ advocates have questions about whether having clergy act as counselors will do more harm than good.

LGBTQ advocates question the efficacy of the new bill

At the age of 30, Bobby Hermida is living a life he couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago.

“I got sober and clean at 24. And this year will be six years of sobriety, and clean time. I've been able to pick up my pieces and reclaim my story at an early age. And I never thought that I would walk into 30 saying that I'd be sober and clean," said Hermida.

Hermida said he was able to get clean thanks to the counseling he received at Zebra Youth, a nonprofit that provides housing support and counseling for at-risk LGBTQ teens.

“I have stable housing, I have a job, I have options. I'm looking at going back to school. I sit on the board of directors here. I have a lot of great things headed my way. And so it's just opportunities after opportunity," said Hermida.

Hermida is one of Zebra Youth’s greatest success stories according to director Heather Wilkie. She said she appreciates the support of people who put up LGBTQ or trans pride flags but doing the actual work and walking with someone who is transitioning, for example, takes much more.

“But beyond that, how do you create a treatment plan for that? How do we work around that with compassion," asked Wilkie.

Wilkie said that’s why she’s worried about legislation awaiting the governor's signature that would allow chaplains to act as school counselors.

Florida requires counselors to be trained

School counselors can provide a range of services, from help choosing classes, to mental health counseling. The state department of education requires school counselors to have at least a masters degree in counseling and 600 hours at a supervised internship.

Under the bill, chaplains would only need to pass a background check, no additional training would be required. But Kathryn Norsworthy said specialized training is needed. She runs Rollins College’s graduate counseling program.

“The process if it’s not done effectively it’s sort of like pouring fuel on the fire. And the kid actually can become even more dysregulated and have even more issues to contend with, if they are not engaged with in a way that is sensitive to what is needed in that situation," said Norsworthy.

A Trevor Project report from 2023, found that LGBTQ youth experience depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation at a rate higher than their straight peers. They also experience barriers to healthcare and to housing.

Norsworthy said for all of these reasons, it's important LGBTQ kids receive care from trained individuals.

Supporters of the bill want more religion in schools

Supporters of the bill say it’s needed to address a statewide counselor shortage. The American School Counselor Association recommends one school counselor per 250 children. In Florida, there’s one counselor per 436.

While other supporters of the bill like mom Mary Ann Fischer who spoke in a Senate committee hearing about the bill, said some students don’t respond well to traditional guidance counseling.

“I think this is a great bill because it supports children, and anything that can bring down the level of violence within the schools, and the disruption in the school environment. The anxiety that children have, some children don't respond to guidance counselors," said Fischer.

Fischer said her daughter who is 17 and has a traumatic brain injury and PTSD from a fire only responds to prayer.

“The one thing that helps her in school is if I can ask the teacher, I ask them, to ask her to say a prayer that will help her to calm down. She overreacts to things because of things that happened when she was a baby," said Fischer.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 13 states across the country are considering similar legislation this year.

Copyright 2024 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

Danielle Prieur
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