(TNS) - In the aftermath of the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School, Gov. Greg Abbott has repeatedly stressed the vital role school counselors and mental health professionals play in identifying troubled students.
Texas law, though, does not require schools to hire counselors, psychologists or social workers, and there is no cap on how many students they can serve.
In Houston, there is one counselor for every 1,100 students, one of the highest caseloads in the state. On average, there are 430 students to every counselor in Texas, well above the American School Counselor Association’s recommended caseload of one counselor per 250 students. For psychologists and social workers, the caseloads are in the thousands.
After each tragedy in American schools — including Santa Fe and Parkland, Fla.— politicians and educators call on districts to do everything from adding metal detectors, banning backpacks to increasing police officers in schools. Hiring more mental health professionals on campuses consistently makes the list, and Abbott has suggested hiring more counselors.
School experts say if the governor and lawmakers want to make meaningful reforms, the state must require counselors on every campus, set manageable caseloads and limit how much time they can spend on non-counseling duties. All of these proposals will cost money, which educators say must come from the state because cash-strapped school districts often have to choose between hiring a counselor or a teacher.
“I do appreciate the governor looking at mental illness, metal detectors, social media checks, which is wonderful,” said Tammi Mackeben, a counselor in El Paso and president of Lone Star State School Counselor Association. “We want mental health screenings, but who is going to pay for them? And then when students do need services, where are we going to send them to meet their needs?”
No mandate, high ratios
Most states mandate schools to have at least one counselor — not Texas. Most high schools in the state have at least one counselor, but there are many elementary schools that do not have someone full-time. Some elementary schools share counselors, which leads to higher caseloads. If counselors have to work with hundreds or thousands of students, they often spend less time with students and can’t fully address their academic or emotional needs, experts say.
Then there’s the question of how schools use their counselors. While state law requires that counselors have a master’s degree in mental health, Mackeben said many schools use counselors to perform tasks that have little to do with helping students. In middle and high schools, counselors also set class schedules, ensure students are on track to graduate and have a career or college plan.
“In many districts, the counselors are the testing coordinators. They also serve as parent liaisons, so their time spent on social emotional and mental health issues is limited,” Mackeben said.
Some schools have psychologists and social workers who should be able to focus on social emotional learning and behavioral health, but their time is also often spent on other tasks, mainly serving special education students. On average, each school psychologist serves more than 2,700 students in Texas schools. The recommended caseload is no more than 700, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.
“There needs to be a collective rethinking of school psychologists and social workers, beyond serving just those students with significant mental distress of in special education,” said Eric Rossen, the director of professional development and standards at the National Association of School Psychologists.
Lawmakers in Texas have tried to require schools to hire behavioral health professionals in the past, but their efforts have failed. In 2017, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, wrote a bill that would require schools to alert parents if their child’s school does not have a full-time counselor, nurse or librarian on staff for more than 30 consecutive days. State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, proposed two bills that would have lowered the student-to-counselor ratio to no more than 300-to-1 and would have set a 10 percent limit on non-counseling duties.
The measures never became law.
Counseling emerges as priority
After the Santa Fe shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott hosted roundtable discussions for three days that included parents, students, education and law enforcement officials. At the end of each day, Abbott said the need for more mental health professionals in schools came up. On Thursday, several parents and students told Abbott that it can often take weeks to see a counselor.
“We talked about increasing school counselors at all levels of schools and with these counselors,” Abbott said. “They'd focus not on academics and not on other types of programs, but they'd focus solely on interventions which is a type of behavior which could lead to your school shooting or other conduct by a student that can harm another.”
At Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the Houston area’s second-largest school district, each counselor serves on average 526 students. Each psychologist has 4,000 students and there is no social worker employed by the district, according to state records.
Franklin D. Sampson, the director of guidance and counseling, said counselors in the district would be able to get to know their students better if they could work with about 300 students. Still, he said dealing with a student’s mental health is a school-wide effort. If teachers see something disturbing in a classroom, they need to alert counselors or other staff.
“From the front receptionist to the cafeteria workers, I think it’s going to take everyone to come together to try to avoid something like this happening again,” Sampson said. “Yes, the counselors play an important role. But do I feel it’s the counselor’s sole responsibility? Absolutely not.”
Jacob Carpenter and Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report.
Alejandra Matos covers politics, education and immigration policy. Follow her on Twitter. Email tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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