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'I didn't really know how else to cope': Former Pinellas student asks schools for help

Isabella Vitale
Posted at 7:22 AM, Apr 19, 2023

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Starting your freshman year of high school can be challenging for any student. But Isabella Vitale was immediately overwhelmed, and early on, her mom Jenny knew something wasn’t right with her daughter.

Isabella was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at seven years old, was called “intellectually gifted” at nine and was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at 13. But as she entered her teen years, Isabella had difficulty making friends.

“She's just really like any kid. Whether they were autistic or not, they just want to fit in. And she didn't know how to fit in,” said Jenny.

Isabella added, “Yeah, I struggled with bullying. I struggled with it like nobody really wanting to be my friend.”

Isabella spoke to ABC Action News with her attorney Melinda Tindell present. She explained how her anxiety level spiked when she started her freshman year at Tarpon Springs High School in Pinellas County.

“I was having a hard time staying organized in school. I was having a hard time like moving from class to class and stuff like that,” explained Isabella.

Despite being diagnosed with autism in elementary school, Isabella should have received an individualized education plan or IEP at that age, according to Florida law. But that never happened.

She asked for one during her freshman year in high school due to her growing anxiety, but the initial IEP wasn't created until her sophomore year. Her increased anxiety led Isabella to start self-harming in class and teachers noticed.

“I would cut myself because I would have like a lot of anxiety. And I didn't really know how else to cope. And part of me thought, 'Well, you know, they don't want to help me, but maybe they'll want to help me if I keep doing this. Because they'll see that something's wrong,'” she said.

Even close friends were concerned, like Madeline Bell, who became friends with Isabella 13 years ago after meeting at the bus stop.

“I thought my friend was going to be dead in 2017, to be honest with you. In 2016, 2017 it was really rough," Bell said. "She cut herself a lot during that time. Almost every time I saw her, there were several new cuts, and I knew it was a way for her to get that pain out. But I knew she shouldn't be doing it in that way."

Bell worried more about Isabella’s mental well-being, but she did not want to be critical of Isabella’s self-harming.

“I don't want to hurt her more by saying, 'what you're doing is wrong' and this and that when she's in pain. There is no reason to yell at her for hurting herself. You need to build her up, not break her back down,” she said.

Isabella’s mental health issues were documented extensively by Tarpon Springs High School officials.

ABC Action News spent months going through Isabella’s initial IEP, IEP amendments, functional behavior assessments, positive behavior intervention plans, call logs and emails. Despite all that documentation, Isabella felt like she was still not getting the help she needed.

Right before her junior year started, Isabella tried to commit suicide.

“The first thing was, 'Oh, my God, I can't lose my child and I don't know how to keep her safe,'" Jenny said. "I was nervous if she went to the bathroom. Do I have a razor in the bathroom? Do I have the knife in the drawer? Like you start to think about it, you cannot safe proof your house from somebody who wants to commit suicide."

Her mom also tried other options to keep Isabella safe with numerous Baker Acts and stays at mental health facilities. But nothing seemed to help, so the school recommended Isabella be home-schooled in December of her junior year to “help prevent her from self-injury and self-harm.”

But during the search for her own solutions, Isabella found Calvin Hunsinger School, a center for kids with special needs. It also has an extensive mental health program.

But getting the transfer to Calvin was not easy, especially after Isabella and her mom made several pleas.

“It pretty much felt like it was just constantly damage control, like putting a bandaid over a cut, instead of fixing the problem,” explained Isabella.

But after observing Isabella’s behavior, school officials offered other options later in her junior year.

They gave her goals like “limiting the times she seeks help from school personnel for meltdowns to one incident per week” and isolating Isabella from other students writing, “Isabella requires an intensive educational placement that addresses her mental health needs throughout her school day. She requires ongoing supervision during all class activities and transitions in and out of the classroom due to monitor her safety.” That daily ongoing supervision lasted for a month and a half.

“So instead of sending me to Calvin, like I wanted them to, they had me in an office space next to the school psychologist and school social worker all day, doing class online,” said Isabella.

“It's really a contradiction. You don't want to put her in the general population because you know that there is an issue, but you're not really making the steps that you really need to help her get into Calvin," Jenny added.

During the summer heading into her senior year, Isabella made one final plea to school officials, asking for a transfer to Calvin.

“And I said, you know this isn't a threat or anything. But if you guys make me go back to Tarpon like, I'm gonna kill myself and it's gonna be at school,” said Isabella.

That very threat was even documented.

Just days before school started, Isabella tried to make good on that threat, this time in an empty classroom. But someone found her and saved her life.

She said that she felt she had to go to that extreme to get someone's attention.

“I know I affected other people in a negative way, and I look back on it and I know it was a bad choice," Isabella said. "But I also wouldn't change it because I don't think anybody would have helped me."

ABC Action News went to Pinellas County Schools looking for answers and spoke with the district public information officer Isabel Mascarenas.

“Keep in mind, the district is not a mental health provider agency. It's a school district,” explained Mascarenas.

She told us she can’t comment on Isabella’s case or any other students but explained what happens when a student qualifies to be transferred to a special needs school, like Calvin.

“For a student to go to Calvin, it's a student who has intense needs and needs more intense resources that a traditional school may not be able to offer," Mascarenas said. "More of that one on one help. More experts on hand. More school psychologists and social workers to work with them at a longer period of time."

When asked why they would choose to not transfer them to Calvin, Mascarenas said she didn't know.

“I would have to find out for you. I don't know what would be a delay to transition them from one to the other,” she said.

Isabella finally got transferred to Calvin during her senior year. Since then, she graduated and is now receiving “postgraduate services.” Isabella hopes telling her story now will help other students speak up and force the school district to do more for students’ mental well-being.

“The Surgeon General has announced that youth mental health has reached a crisis. And I think that it is absolutely the school board's responsibility to address this crisis, or I think more children will die. And I think that's unacceptable,” said Isabella.

We reached out via e-mail and phone to all of the Pinellas County School Board members several times for a comment. But as of today, no one has responded.