In the wake of yet another horrific school shooting, television and radio pundits and social media participants are once again consumed with discussion about what needs to be done to stop the insanity of having innocent young lives taken from us by the rising number of “failed joiners” who are determined to get the revenge they feel they deserve from their social isolation.
While gun control arguments and mental health reform often rise immediately to the surface, an often overlooked and underutilized resource can, if given the opportunity, make a significant difference. I’m referring to the highly skilled and well-trained professional school counselor.
Despite being much maligned in media portrayals (e.g., Mr. Mackey on “South Park”), most of today’s school counselors graduate from 60-credit-hour master’s level graduate programs that include coursework in identifying early signs of depression, social isolation, aggressive and anti-social behaviors, and all of the other pre-determinants that can lead to a school shooter mindset.
But regardless of this advanced level of training in mental health issues, the role of the professional school counselor is often misunderstood or not properly recognized by school administrators who often assign counselors administrative duties (i.e., test coordination, cafeteria and bus duty, etc.) that remove them from working directly with students. While the American School Counselor Association recommends that school counselors spend at least 80 percent of their time working directly with students, many studies have shown that most school counselors spend considerably less face-to face time with those assigned to them.
In addition, most school counselor caseloads are significantly larger than the 250 to 1 ratio recommended by ASCA. Currently the national average is 482 to1. Based on the data for the 2015-2016 academic year, Maryland school counselors have an average of 369 to 1, well above the recommended ratio.
Given these overwhelming caseloads, combined with the lack of a clearly defined role that emphasizes direct service to students, there is very little time left for counselors to identify and work proactively with students who are starting down the destructive path of social isolation and aggressiveness.
To add to this dilemma, the National Institute of Mental Health has recently reported that about 20 percent of our nation’s teen-agers either have or have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder. That’s an alarming statistic when one considers the number of students in a school environment who are on the cusp of externalizing their frustrations and placing themselves and others at risk on a daily basis.
So, while we see such a dramatic uptick in mental health issues in our students, does it make any sense to not utilize the services of behavioral health experts within the school community who are trained to identify and provide direct counseling to prevent aggressive behaviors proactively?
When provided the opportunity to do their jobs as they are trained, professional school counselors collaborate continually with administrators, teachers, school staff members, parents, students and community partners to assess the needs of their students and design and implement pro-social interventions that can help reduce student conflict in our schools.
By providing direct services that include individual and group counseling sessions, as well as teaching evidence-based classroom lessons dealing with conflict resolution, bullying prevention, suicide prevention, self-esteem promotion, anger management, etc., professional school counselors have the ability to significantly impact the lives of students who have become disengaged and disenfranchised. There is a plethora of research to illustrate the effectiveness of the aforementioned interventions; we just need to have the proper number of counselors and provide them with the opportunity to deliver more direct services to students.
Kevin L. Ensor is a former supervisor of school counselors for Harford County Public Schools; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.