Don't overlook counselors in school safety debate

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 (“Trump tells nation’s governors to turn grief into action on violence after Florida shooting,” Feb. 26). 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 aligned in media portrayals, most of today’s school counselors graduate from 60-credit hour masters 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 (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 250:1 ratio recommended by ASCA. Currently, the national average is 482:1. Based on the data for the 2015-2016 academic year, Maryland school counselors have an average of 369:1, 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 youth are affected by a severe mental disorder, which is 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 services to prevent aggressive behaviors proactively?

When provided the opportunity to do their job 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, bully prevention, suicide prevention, self-esteem, anger management, etc., professional school counselors have the ability to significantly impact the lives of students who have become disengaged and disenfranchised. A plethora of findings from research illustrates 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.

Unlike the controversial aspects of gun control and mental health reform, a proposal to increase the number of school counselors, reduce large student caseloads, and change the role of the school counselor, this common sense approach, backed by numerous findings from research, does not need to be debated. The school environment provides an ideal opportunity for educators to change the trajectory of the lives of young and malleable students on a daily basis. Rather than waste valuable time and resources, let’s make some changes that have will provide professionals in the school with the opportunity to recognize the warning signs of anti-social and aggressive behaviors early, and make available to our students who are at-risk of becoming the next school shooter the proper mental health services they need to become connected and accepted by adults and their peers. Providing professional school counselors with the opportunity to do their jobs the way they were trained is a good place to start.

Kevin L. Ensor, Las Vegas, N.M.

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