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Texas Schools Lack Sufficient Number Of Mental Health Professionals, Experts Say

March 15, 2018 | By Camille Phillips

For every public school counselor in Texas last school year, there were almost 450 students.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 to one.

After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month, experts across the country renewed a call for increased access to counselors, social workers and therapists.

In an open letter signed by thousands of organizations and individuals, the school violence researchers said access to mental health providers can help prevent future school shootings.

Texas mental health advocates say although ratios vary from district to district, many schools lack the staffing necessary to fully meet student needs.

According to state records, Texas public schools employed a little more than 12,100 counselors in the 2016-2017 school year. Those counselors were responsible for a statewide enrollment of almost 5.4 million students, for a ratio of 442 to 1.

“A lot of that has to do with geography, it has to do with the philosophy of the leadership in a school district, and it has to do with the resources that are available,” said Jan Friese, the executive director of the Texas Counseling Association.

Friese said a school’s finances and priorities are the biggest factors in determining whether a counselor has a small enough caseload to spend time in classrooms and meet students one on one.

She said when counselors are in charge of a large number of students, most of their time can be taken up with academic tasks such as aptitude tests and course recommendations. Their time can be further limited when principals ask them to handle additional duties, like monitoring lunch.

“When students have access to a school counselor, the campus is safer; they feel more secure; they’re more likely to talk to and trust adults; their academics improve,” Friese said.

According to state records, charter schools in Bexar County had both the lowest and highest student to counselor ratios: Por Vida Academy with 132 to one, and Great Hearts Texas with one counselor for all 2,312 students last school year.

Most school districts in Bexar County had counselor ratios between 400 and 500 students per counselor.

Friese said working with other mental health professionals such as social workers can help school counselors reach more students, but out of thousands of Texas school districts, only a fraction employs social workers. Some cities, including San Antonio, rely on nonprofits like Communities in Schools to help fill in the gaps.

Miriam Nisenbaum, the executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said there are only around 700 school social workers in the state because Texas doesn’t require schools to have them.

“Because we’re not more clearly defined in the Texas education code we have more latitude,” Nisenbaum said. “Most social workers in the schools in Texas do work hand in glove with the school counselors, but they have more of an ability to get off campus and look at the other systems that the child is involved to see how they can be of help.”

She said even with the help of nonprofits, Texas needs more social workers, and they too could help reduce bullying and behavior concerns in schools.

“There’s no fool-proof way to say that, you know, ‘if we just had psychiatrists at school we could prevent school shootings.’ You can’t,” Nisenbaum said. “But what you can do is have more trained personnel like social workers who can spot and can follow up on people with behavioral issues (and) emotional issues.”

Thomas Schanding, with the Texas Association of School Psychologists, said his national organization recommends a school psychologist ratio of no more than 700 to one, and a school social worker ratio of 400 to one.

Last year, Texas public schools employed 1,850 psychologists for a ratio of almost 2,900 to one.

houstonpublicmedia.org

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