- By Editorial Board
Students returning to school a few weeks ago likely noticed new security features at their campuses. More locked doors and secure entrances where visitors must be buzzed in. Fewer fire alarms that can be pulled by anyone. A new police presence on some campuses, and unbeknownst to students, a growing number of armed employees trained to take out anyone who opens fire on a school.
Even as districts harden buildings against the distant but dreadful possibility of a school shooting, however, many campuses are hurting for the most valuable resources needed to keep kids safe.
Based on the recommendations of the American Counseling Association, Texas schools should have one counselor for every 250 students.
We average one counselor per 441 students.
School districts should have one licensed school psychologist for every 1,000 students.
We average one school psychologist per 2,890 students.
Schools should have one social worker for every 400 students.
We average one social worker per 7,548 students.
More than a third of Texas high school students have reported feeling so sad or hopeless for at least two weeks that they stopped doing their usual activities. One in eight Texas high schoolers said they tried to take their own life.
Schools have the opportunity to help those students, and could save lives by doing so, but they need to have enough trained experts on campus to help troubled teens.
With many districts already financially strapped, it is imperative for the state to step forward with the money to provide these resources.
We see signs of hope in the preliminary report released Tuesday by the Texas House of Representatives’ Committee on Public Education, which held hearings this summer on how to improve school safety in the wake of campus shootings like the May attack at Santa Fe High School.
Though it doesn’t provide specific dollar amounts, the House report calls for the state to fund more school counselors and psychologists, provide more training for school staffers and improve students’ access to community mental health providers.
We wholeheartedly support this approach and call on lawmakers to back it up with real dollars. It’s far better to prevent a school shooting than try to contain the damage of one. And providing the behavioral and mental health programs that could prevent the next mass shooting will also help students who may be struggling with bullying, depression or other problems that aren’t fixed by adding metal detectors or bulletproof glass.
A few days before the House report came out, the Texas Education Agency included a special pot of money in its funding request to the Legislature for the next biennium: $54 million for a new “Safe and Healthy Schools Initiative.” The agency recommends the bulk of that, $36.5 million, should go toward one-time grants to help school districts provide mental health support and improve school culture, for instance with programs that help students learn how to manage their emotions and talk through disputes.
That’s a start, but the dollars won’t go very far in a state with more than 1,200 school districts. They are also one-time grants, while schools desperately need recurring dollars to keep counselors and other professionals on the payroll year after year.
The Senate select committee on school safety, which also held hearings this summer, issued findings last month that detailed the mental health needs at districts around the state. But its report included only a vague call to “consider methods to increase the availability of school counselors” and other specialists.
That’s not enough. Tragedies like the Santa Fe shooting, which left 10 dead and 13 injured, must serve as a wake-up call that Texas cannot afford to skimp on the counseling and interventions some students need.
Significantly, the House report supports creating a statewide resource center to help school districts develop their mental health and school culture programs, similar to the way the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University to provides training and expert advice on campus safety matters.
The nonprofit Texans Care for Children called for such a center after the Santa Fe shooting. We know that better school culture creates safer campuses: A 2004 report by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education found the potential for school violence decreases on campuses where problems are addressed early, kids and adults alike are treated with respect and students feel a sense of connectedness to the school.
And as we’ve noted, efforts to improve campus culture could also transform the kinds of disciplinary practices that currently place struggling students further behind instead of diagnosing and addressing their problems.
In their respective hearings this summer, lawmakers in both chambers took an expansive look at ways to promote school safety. Legislators must keep that broad view when crafting policies and setting aside funding in the upcoming session.
To focus only on fortifying schools against a mass shooter suggests a form of resignation, that these shootings can’t be stopped and all we can do is try to limit the loss of life.
Texas can do much better than that.
Invest in making kids’ lives better. Ensure campuses have the caring professionals needed to help children and teens struggling with behavioral or mental health issues.
Make school a place where students can thrive, not just survive.