Jessica Marrero was 15 in 1999 and attending Buchholz High School when gunfire erupted at Columbine, leaving 12 students dead and more than two dozen injured. Worried about the “atmosphere of exclusion” that contributed to the tragedy, she and her younger sister Shannon worked with mental health professionals at what is now UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital, where their mother has worked for many years, and with the UF departments of psychology and psychiatry as well as the Alachua County school superintendent to create PALS.
PALS features students in eight schools across Alachua County. Graduate-level interns work with schools to combat bullying and to bring attention to mental health issues, and UF Health staff provide resources and run the program behind the scenes.
THRIVE was added three years ago to reflect the work they do.
The program has had almost 40,000 student participants, said Lucy Marrero, Ph.D., a psychologist at UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital. Her daughters founded the program. “I think students are scared,” she said, referencing the increasing number of school shootings. “I think they just come to school a little bit more fearful.” Along with allowing students to leave class and talk to a counselor whenever needed, the PALS THRIVE program has led anti-bullying workshops in classrooms and assemblies for schools.
“When any student is harboring a great deal of anger or has mental health problems, they feel like there is someone to go to,” Marrero said. “Any student is welcome to attend counseling, and anyone can refer a student to a counseling session: a parent, a teacher or even the student.”