Reilly: Ratio of school psychologists to students needs a boost in Maryland

One of a series of weekly commentaries from Harford County state legislators regarding the 2019 Maryland General Assembly session.

School psychologists are described by the National Association of Psychologists as “uniquely qualified members of school teams that support students' ability to learn and teachers' ability to teach. They apply expertise in mental health, learning, and behavior, to help children and youth succeed academically, socially, behaviorally, and emotionally.”

The goals of the School Psychology Program in Maryland are to prevent or remediate educational, emotional or behavioral problems by identifying, analyzing and reporting psychoeducational needs through consultation, observation or through psychological and educational assessment.

Because of their important role in the lives of our students and the need to identify adequate staffing ratios to support student behavioral health and provide access to behavioral health programming and services, and, after students, parents, teachers, and school psychologists contacted me about the need for action, I decided to submit a bill to the General Assembly this year that would mandate that each school in the state submit a report on the ratio of psychologists to students in each of our schools. Each school must also submit a plan to include strategies which will include sources of funding to bring the ratio of psychologists to students to 1:700 in each of our schools. The industry recognized ratio is 500 to 700 students per psychologist.

In addition, this report will enable us to see how school psychologists are utilized in the local school systems and to plan in the future to incorporate school psychologists, guidance counselors and school social workers in the everyday school life of our students.

School psychologists are an integral part of a public school system. However, the majority of Maryland counties do not adhere to the National Association of School Psychologists’ recommended ratio of no more than 500 to 700 students per school psychologist. Maryland’s current average ratio is 1:1,240, but numbers taken from the Negotiated Agreements comparison of counties, show that some counties double and triple the recommended maximum of students per school psychologists, putting their numbers at 2,000 and 3,000 students per school psychologist.

The amount of students requiring services has risen in the past few decades: A Center for Disease Control and Prevention report showed that “suicide rates were significantly higher in 2017 compared with 1999 among males aged 10-14 and according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration, about 52,000 adolescents in Maryland aged 12-17 during the years 2013-2014 within the year prior to being surveyed had at least one major depressive episode. (This is a period which is two weeks or longer where an individual experiences certain symptoms of major depression.) This was higher than the national average between 2010-2014.

In Harford County alone, the rate of suicidal thoughts among high school students rose from 1.3 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2018.

With the children in our state and country experiencing more incidences of behavioral and mental health issues, we need to act quickly on their behalf. The number of vacancies in school psychologist positions is concerning, especially in the face of the rising need. This negative situation is unacceptable. We need to take action now to help our students before this discrepancy becomes completely unmanageable.

Instead of passing restorative measures for after suspension and expulsion, we should be passing proactive and preventative programs to identify and help students before they reach the point of almost no return. We do not want to have to remedy the effects of student behavior after the fact. It is far better to bypass conflict altogether, than have to resolve conflict later. By using proactive methods, we can avoid harm to the school community rather than repairing damage.

I firmly believe that this bill and the resulting report will aid our local school systems in future planning to curb bullying, the depression that goes along with it and aid in the decline in our State’s youth suicide rates.

It is but a start in helping our children who are our future in Maryland.

Del. Teresa Reilly, a Republican, represents District 35B.

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