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Team Susana - How mental health professionals are coming together to help a Stoneman Douglas survivor thrive at Sickles High.

April 12, 2019 - Student Success

They said she should not move to another city. They said people from another school would not understand. They said others would not be able to help her.

Susana Matta Valdivieso says “they” were wrong.

Susana transferred to Sickles High School this year as a senior. She plans to study business administration and go to law school -- but a tragedy last year almost made those goals unachievable.

“On Feb 14th 2018 there was a shooting at my last high school— Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people died and 17 others were injured," said Susana. "It started with a fire alarm that sent all students running out of their classrooms, but the shooter was outside waiting for them. It has been hard since then, especially with fire alarms or people dressed a certain way— or just knowing there are people that might have guns that are near me and I don’t know it".

Leaving her friends at Stoneman Douglas was hard – but she says the students and staff at Sickles made the transition so much easier. Whether there’s a pep rally and she cannot handle the crowds or a fire drill scheduled, the staff at Sickles has been there to calm her down. 

“I once had an experience where I broke down and I spoke to a counselor who wasn’t even my counselor and she helped me through it and that means a lot coming from someone who doesn’t know me,” said Susana.  

At Sickles, and all schools throughout our district, mental health professionals are trying to be proactive so that if a student is anxious, upset or angry, there are staff members available to help meet their needs.

“When it came to supporting Susana, we became aware that Susana experienced significant emotional trauma at Marjory Stoneman Douglas— she is indeed a survivor.  We wanted to provide her with ample emotional support so we created “TEAM SUSANA”, which includes a school counselor, school social worker, school psychologist, and administrators. Susana knows she can reach out to any of us at any time for help,” said Vito Ricciardi, School Psychologist at Sickles High School, who has more than 35 years of experience in our district, specializing in mental health.  

Team Susana put their heads together and came up with a plan. Since lockdown drills and fire alarms are emotional triggers for her, administration gives her counselors a heads-up, so that Susana has the option to stay with a member of Team Susana during the drill.

Susana says she appreciates her team, but she’s also a strong advocate of students being proactive if they are struggling. She says, don’t wait for help to come to you.

“Just like a check-up when you go to the doctor—even when you know you are okay, you should have someone check on your mental health,” Susana said. “There are so many problems that we don’t realize we have until it is too late, so I encourage everyone to ask one another how you are feeling and how is your day going.”

While the team at Sickles is helping Susana heal today, Hillsborough County Public Schools played a pivotal role in helping the Parkland community grieve and heal following the shooting. Almost immediately, our district mobilized a task force of mental health professionals, led by Anne Townsend, Supervisor of Psychological Services, to travel from Tampa to Parkland to help with grief counseling.

That trip was valuable for Parkland but also valuable for us.

This opportunity allowed the task force to come back and share with other district psychologists and social workers the best way to handle a large-scale crisis response. They came up with protocol on who to work with from communications, private and public agencies, security, and most importantly, what teams would go where to provide counseling to students.

“In many ways we take pride that we are one of the bigger and maybe one of the best trained crisis teams in the nation. Sadly, using the tragedy that happened in Parkland as a teachable moment, we are now prepared at a moment’s notice to help stakeholders deal with grief and trauma,” said Ricciardi.

Unfortunately, that grief and trauma continue, more than a year later.

Recently, the suicides of a current student at Stoneman Douglas and a graduate have raised public awareness and media coverage about suicide and the role of schools in preventing youth suicide.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for children nationally and the second leading cause of death in 10 to 19-year-olds in Florida. According to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 14% of Florida high school students reported having seriously considered attempting suicide and 11% reported having made a plan to attempt suicide in the past year.

Our district’s Student Services staff works hard each day to raise awareness of suicide prevention, assessing suicide risk and providing intervention for students with suicidal thoughts, and supporting students when a tragedy impacts a school community.

Susana has a message to those who are struggling, “Just know there is so much more to life and although this feeling may feel very big and overwhelming in life right now there are so many things that will come to you and make you feel so much better— but you won’t experience them if you are not here”.


Did you know May is Mental Health Awareness Month? To generate awareness and provide tools to support the mental health of our students and school community, we will be posting daily on our district twitter page and every Monday on our Facebook and Instagram page. Be sure to like and follow us @HillsboroughSch.

Coming soon you will be able to view our newly designed, Mental Health webpage at to find, resource, contact information and tools to help those closest to you.