Since the arrests of teenage students in the mass school shootings in Parkland and in Santa Fe, parents and politicians have been calling on school counselors to become part of the first line of defense by spotting students who are in crisis and intervening.
Gov. Greg Abbott made adding campus counselors part of his 40-point school safety action plan, looking to them to address student mental health needs.
But Texas has too few counselors to begin with, and they say they’re already struggling to address rising levels of anxiety among teens — a struggle that is underscored by a recent study showing 1 in 8 Texas high school students attempted suicide in 2017.
“You have school shootings, students in crisis who want to hurt themselves and do hurt themselves, you have students who are trying to get into their college of choice, stay in the top 10 percent,” said Mary Patin, a deputy superintendent in the Lake Travis school district. “Schools have become a vulnerable place.”
It’s unclear whether school districts can afford to hire more counselors any time soon.
The Austin school district, considered a leader in providing student mental health services, faces a $29 million budget deficit and is in jeopardy of losing 16 of its 40 campus-based mental health centers this August unless new funding can be found.
As lawmakers continue to discuss the matter Thursday at a joint hearing of the Texas House health and education committees, they already are being prodded to increase funding for counselors, social workers and other mental health professionals by the nonprofit Texans Care for Children.
The group also is calling for the Legislature to establish a center for mental health to offer resources and training to districts, and to help them develop social emotional learning programs that teach kindness, cooperation and empathy.
“Schools play a critical role in addressing children’s mental health because they are so central to our kids’ lives,” said Josette Saxton, the group’s director of mental health policy. “Significant mental health challenges are very common among Texas kids. Providing more students with access to mental health professionals is critical, but because these challenges are so common it is also important to go beyond only serving those students with the most visible and acute needs.”
‘Counselors work on that prevention level’
While about 30 states require schools to staff at least one counselor, there is no such mandate in Texas. Most school districts across the state and locally remain well below the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of a counselor for every 250 students.
Texas counselors must have teaching experience and a master degree. The state’s minimum salary begins at $28,080 for entry-level counselors on a 10-month salary and $45,510 for those with at least 20 years of experience. Central Texas districts pay their counselors more; in the Austin district, salaries for entry-level counselors start at $49,500 and those with more than 20 years start at $61,906.
“Every day a student walks in, you never know what they’re going through, what they’ve dealt with that morning,” said Deanna Baker, a counselor at Vista Ridge High School in the Leander district who remains on campus as students go through summer school. “I was talking to a student earlier who just had a rough morning and just needed to vent, needed to talk. I can’t solve their problems for them. They just need to talk. We need to bounce ideas off each other. And they need to know my door is open to them.”
But school counselors often have been bogged down with setting course schedules, providing college advising and other administrative tasks that curtail the time they can devote to students who need more time and attention.
“Counselors’ plates are very full,” said Tammi Mackeben, president of the Lone Star School Counselor Association. “They are being stretched thinner and thinner. Many school counselors are used as testing coordinators, which takes up a huge amount of their time and leaves less time to work with students individually, in groups and to teach them social skills in the classroom lessons.”
Mackeben said with higher rates of depression and anxiety, there is no question more counselors are needed, but said there also must be funding for the positions and mandated ratios. Some Texas schools don’t have any counselors, and others staff them with ratios of 1,000 students to one counselor.
Even those who are licensed professional counselors are limited in the scope of counseling services they can provide students. They can’t set therapy goals or weekly appointments with students, but are trained in assessing whether the students need more intervention and often refer the students to district social workers or clinical therapists.
“School counselors work on that prevention level,” said Jill Cook, assistant director for the American School Counselor Association. “School counselors do not provide therapy or long-term counseling. You want to connect students with outside resources once you identify their needs. The school counselor is the one who can take the lead in getting the kid help.”
School and mental health advocates say only hiring more counselors isn’t enough, and that other resources are needed to provide a panoply of service — quality mental health care requires a collaborative among the counselors, and other positions that often are in short supply, including school nurses, district social workers and campus psychologists or outside agencies.
It is work that is proven to change lives.
An Austin high school counselor referred 17-year-old Sloan Dudley to the campus-based mental health center her freshmen year.
Dudley had developed an eating disorder, was cutting herself and skipping class when she felt overwhelmed, then getting further behind in her studies and feeling even more overwhelmed.
She began routine counseling sessions and the on-site therapist helped her cope with her depression and anxiety disorder. The center allowed her to get help she couldn’t afford to pay for otherwise, she said, and by offering the service down the hall, it cut down on missing class. She could turn to the therapists during emergencies.
“It gave me a safe space,” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done without that resource. There should be a school-based therapist on every campus.”
Just having graduated high school, she says she has the tools she needs to manage her stress and plans to attend Austin Community College this fall and eventually become a choir teacher.
Post-Columbine changes didn’t touch on mental health
In the ever-increasing emphasis on school security since the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, school districts across the country, including in Texas, have focused on school architecture, constructing secure front entrances and running background checks on campus visitors. Schools often have routine lockdown drills to ensure teachers and students know what to do when an intruder, or a student, comes through the halls armed.
In response to the most recent shootings, calls for improving mental health resources in schools have been embraced by politicians, parents and school leaders — not nearly as controversial as other possible solutions, such as tightening gun laws or arming more teachers.
“Because of the tragedies, people are considering what kinds of supports we need to ensure our schools are safe,” Patin said, adding that the Lake Travis district for the 2018-19 school year is hiring an additional counselor at each middle school to support students as enrollment rises.
The ratios of school counselors to students vary widely across the country and in Texas. Locally, they range from 280 students per counselor in Leander, to 611 students per counselor in Lake Travis. Statewide, the average is 449 students per counselor, slightly lower than the national average.
The types of mental health supports vary across districts, as well. While some districts employ teams of school counselors, social workers and psychologists, many have none. Others have partnerships with outside agencies and refer students to them.
“The mental health part of the school counselor role is so crucial to the well-being of an entire school,” Vista Ridge counselor Baker said. “Our department is one that can really make change and really help. Yes, we do the credits and those tasks … but that shouldn’t be the bulk of my job. It’s working with students and that mental health piece.”
Central Texas school counselor count
The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250 to 1, but local, state and national averages soar above that rate.* Here are the number of students per counselor in local districts:
• Lake Travis: 611 students per counselor.
• Dripping Springs: 520
• National average: 482
• Del Valle: 473
• Hays Consolidated: 462
• State average in Texas: 449
• Georgetown: 444
• Lockhart: 437
• Hutto: 430
• Pflugerville: 418
• Manor: 395
• Bastrop: 386
• San Marcos: 363
• Austin: 355
• Round Rock: 349
• Eanes: 320
• Leander: 280
Source: American School Counselor Association, National Center for Education Statistics, local school districts.
*Ratios shown are districtwide. Ratios at elementary, middle and high school levels may vary.