Helping Children Heal in One of Jacksonville’s Deadliest Zipcodes

In late 2018, Fulterius King arrived at Susie Tolbert Elementary School with an important mission: to help young students struggling to cope with trauma. In just one year he would treat more than 100 students, many suffering from multiple adverse childhood experiences.

King, a 28 year-old mental health therapist from Daniel Kids, was placed at Susie Tolbert through the Full Service Schools initiative. Full Service Schools, a partnership between United Way, the Kids Hope Alliance, and Duval County Public Schools, connects thousands of local students and their families to a range of therapeutic, health, and social services, free of charge.

Before King’s arrival, there was no mental health therapist at Susie Tolbert. The change came after the enactment of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act (SB 7026), which authorized a number of grants to reduce student violence and provide mental and behavioral health services. A matching grant from the City of Jacksonville doubled the funds available for mental health services in Duval County, resulting in the placement of a therapist or social worker at every school in the district.

King’s position met an urgent need for mental health services at Susie Tolbert. The school is located in one of Jacksonville’s deadliest zip codes, 32209, which experienced 27 homicides in 2019 (the next highest zip code, 32210, had 16).  The student population at Susie Tolbert has been directly impacted by this violence; some students have even witnessed first-hand the murder of family members.

King estimates that at least 90% his caseload had experienced three or more traumatic childhood experiences, the most common being physical abuse, community violence, and separation of the family. Many of the students’ traumatic experiences were complicated by the stresses associated with poverty.

“I was shocked by the overwhelming number of adverse childhood experiences I was hearing about,” King reflects. “And immediately I recognized a connection between unresolved adverse childhood experiences and the behavioral issues students were exhibiting.”

Students were referred to him by teachers or the school counselor. Some children even requested to see King themselves. Once King received consent from their parents or guardians, he began therapy sessions with the students at his office inside Susie Tolbert, adjacent to the school library.

Fulterius King (left) embraces the Kids Hope Alliance Director of Special Needs, Mary Nash, who oversees KHA’s involvement with Full Service Schools.

After an initial evaluation, King gave students a very basic psychological education to help normalize what they were feeling. He then would teach them relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, and coping skills. And he listened. He listened to their stories, their hurt, their fears, their anger, their hopes for the future. But, most important, he made it clear to the students that he saw potential in every one of them.

For most of the children, these in-school sessions with King were their first experience with therapy or mental health services. Teachers noticed an almost immediate difference.

“Many of our students are suffering from trauma, family dysfunction, and other issues that affect their school performance,” commented one teacher. They added, “I have seen students who were angry or fighting almost every day change as a result of therapy with Fulterius King.”

Susie Tolbert’s Principal, Shana Brown-Adams, echoed the teacher’s endorsement. “When Fulterius first came, I had a stack of referrals waiting. Families asked for help but did not know how to get the help they needed. Once they met Fulterius, they melted, cried, and shared their stories. And the healing began. He became one of the major arteries that helped the little hearts at our school beat.”

King left his position at Susie Tolbert Elementary School in late November 2019 after being promoted to a residential program at Daniel Kids (another therapist immediately assumed his role). But his year at Susie Tolbert has made a lasting impression on his work as both a therapist and an advocate.

“I am grateful for my experience at Susie Tolbert. I have always known there was a great need for mental health services within marginalized or minority populations, but experiencing it first-hand has made me even more of an advocate to make these resources more accessible.”

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Written by: Robin Franks