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(Photos by David Kidd)

Many Students Are in Crisis. So Is America's School Counseling System.

Counselors say budget cuts have left them unable to respond to students’ mental health needs.
by | July 2019

Janine Menard is moving quickly through her busy day. On a Monday morning at Pueblo del Sol Elementary, a dual elementary and middle school in West Phoenix, she visits a fourth-grade classroom that’s getting a lesson in understanding “different perspectives.” Menard, the school counselor, goes over scenarios aimed at tapping into the children’s empathetic side. They discuss ways to bridge gaps in understanding using emotional intelligence. 

An hour later, Menard heads upstairs to a room of seventh-graders to teach them about sexual harassment. They go over the difference between sexual harassment and rape, and learn that sending or posting unsolicited photos on social media counts as sexual harassment. Menard asks them about behaviors they see around school -- like boys who grab girls in the hall, or kids teasing someone for their sexual orientation. 

After those two lessons, it’s back to her office, where she meets with students for the rest of the day. Her docket today includes two refugee girls who’ve been subjected to merciless taunts and a girl who’s been “acting out” in class for reasons unknown. 

As the sole full-time counselor for Pueblo del Sol Elementary, Menard, who is also the chair of the Arizona School Counselors Association, has a caseload of 1,100 kids. The school is overwhelmingly Hispanic and low-income, with test scores falling far below state averages. Domestic violence, absentee parents and drug use run rampant in many of the students’ homes. Many kids come to school loaded with trauma. “This area just really eats up these kids,” Menard says between counseling sessions.

The mental health needs at Pueblo del Sol and all around the state are significant, but Arizona public schools are woefully unequipped to handle them. The statewide ratio of students to school counselors is 905 to 1, according to the latest numbers from the American School Counselor Association. It’s the highest ratio in the country by a long shot. Michigan, the state with the second-highest ratio, has 741 students for every one counselor. The national average is 455 to 1.

Although a master’s degree in counseling is usually a prerequisite for being a school counselor, in the past several decades counselors have been pigeonholed as aides, often called on to help high school kids figure out their post-graduation plans and sometimes to monitor achievement tests. As mental health becomes less stigmatized and existential threats like school shootings and climate change supercharge a school child’s worries, kids are beginning to expect -- and need -- more mental health guidance. Menard says kids are googling their symptoms and come into her office and say they have depression or anxiety. “It’s self-diagnosis,” she says, “but still, there’s something behind that -- they have a need.” 

 


Janine Menard, the chair of the Arizona School Counselors Association and the sole counselor at Pueblo del Sol

 

Arizona may be in the worst shape, but states in general offer little recourse for this growing cry for help. School districts across the country are grappling with a lack of mental health resources. Menard worries that, like many school counselors, she is so overwhelmed by the number of students and their problems that it impedes her ability to build a rapport with the most troubled students. “A lot of kids are falling in the cracks,” she says. She is particularly troubled that she may have missed the warning signs when one of her students committed suicide two years ago. 

 

Arizona’s inadequate student/counselor ratio is a symptom of a larger issue in the state, one that goes back to reductions in overall education funding. Years of cuts in the education budget have been devastating -- driving up teacher and faculty turnover. In the 2017-18 school year, 3,286 untrained teachers received state teaching certificates. Meanwhile, 42 percent of teachers hired in 2013 left their positions within three years. 

“We’ve been a high-growth state for about two decades,” says Christine Thompson, the president and CEO of Expect More Arizona, an education advocacy organization. She notes that between 2010 and 2019, the state’s population grew by half a million people. But the Great Recession was taking its toll on state revenues and deep budgets cuts were inevitable. “With population growth happening at the same time,” she says, “everyone in education felt those cuts tremendously.” 

In 2018, Arizona educators -- along with those in five other states -- went on strike to protest years of budget cuts and stagnant wages. At its peak, the strike forced 90 school districts in the state to close as some 50,000 teachers marched on the state capitol. Among other demands, they wanted state lawmakers to restore public education funding to pre-recession levels and to increase teacher pay. Gov. Doug Ducey eventually agreed to a 20 percent raise by 2020, ending the strike.

For school counselors and other mental health providers, there’s more at play than pay raises. The student population is a troubled one. Arizona children seem to have more mental health needs than kids in other states. Thirty percent of them have experienced at least two adverse childhood experiences -- the highest in the nation, according to data from the state’s Department of Health Services. Adverse childhood experiences, often called ACEs, can be such things as experiencing physical or emotional abuse or having an incarcerated parent. 

On top of that, poverty takes a toll -- Arizona ranks in the top 10 states for highest rates of poverty -- as does the transient nature of its residents. “Arizona has a lot of transplants, and it takes a number of years before you have a sense of community in a place you’ve moved to,” Thompson says. “Combined with a high poverty rate, which is also a big contributor, we really see it in kids when they have to move from school to school.”

 

 

While the kids at Menard’s school suffer from problems that arise from poor socioeconomic backgrounds, a few miles southeast of the city, in a more affluent area, there’s been a spike in teen suicides in recent years. In a region known as the East Valley, more than two dozen teens took their own lives during the 2017-2018 school year.

Following the spate of suicides, the Chandler Unified School District, located in the East Valley, allocated funds to place a social worker in every high school, conducted suicide prevention training for staff and introduced mindfulness and self-care language throughout the schools. Depression warning signs and suicide prevention tactics were posted in students’ planners and around the schools. The school district knew it wouldn’t get money from the state, but local officials determined that the investments had to be made. “At the end of the day, you don’t ever want to ask ‘can you come back at another time’ to the wrong kid,” says Anne Cordasco, assistant director of counseling and social services in the Chandler Unified School District. “When you’re a school counselor, you’re holding someone else’s heart in your hands.” 

If Menard had a smaller caseload and more resources at her disposal, she says she would focus on kindergartners and try to catch mental health and behavioral problems early. As it is, she doesn’t get much time to ask her middle schoolers about professional ambitions and plans once her students graduate eighth grade. “I have zero time to talk about college and career, so there’s that exploration of figuring out what you like to do and matching that with skills that they’re not getting,” she says. “There are just so many social and emotional needs happening.” 

March for Our Lives, the student-led advocacy organization created in 2018 after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, is particularly active in Arizona. Although gun violence is a top priority for the group, mental health and bringing down the school counselor ratio also are major issues for the Arizona chapter.

Last fall, the organization held a summit with students from all over the state and posed the question: What makes you feel safe in your schools and in your community? 

One issue that the students kept bringing up was help for mental health issues. “No matter the students’ political beliefs,” says Jordan Harb, executive director of the Arizona chapter of March for Our Lives, “they felt that having more counselors and support networks makes them feel safer. Many of them know people who have been on the verge of ending their life.” 

Since school budgets are stretched thin, it affects the ability of kids to access their counselors. Harb describes the situation this way: “If you’re in a crisis, my counselor can’t help you because she’s the one administering AP exams, something that shouldn’t be her job in the first place.” 

This year, Harb, along with other education and mental health advocates, lobbied in Phoenix for bills that would have prioritized mental health funding in schools. The two nearly identical bills in the state House and Senate would have appropriated more than $100 million by 2023 to a statewide grant program, where schools could apply for counseling and mental health grants. They would also have explicitly defined the role and requirements of a school counselor and mandated the ratio drop to 550 to 1 by the 2024-2025 school year. Both bills failed. 

 


Jordan Harb leads the Arizona chapter of March for Our Lives, the national student-led movement against gun violence.

 

The situation might be particularly strained in Arizona, but it is not unique. Many school districts across the country have long suffered from a dearth of mental health resources. But a number of states have begun to address the issue. In fact, the overall ratio of school counselors to students in the 50 states has dropped to its lowest point in 31 years, according to the American School Counselor Association. This drop is proof, says Jill Cook, assistant director of the Counselor Association, that states and school districts are beginning to understand the important role school counselors play.

It’s estimated that one in five children suffers from a mental health issue. When school personnel aren’t available to provide basic support and to make referrals, “that means the children aren’t getting the support they need,” Cook says. “School counselors develop the scaffolding kids need in order to develop academically.” 

While there has been improvement, the national average is still double what the association recommends, which is 250 students to every one counselor. Only two states, New Hampshire and Vermont, have a ratio below that number. 

Virginia lawmakers approved a bill this year that will require schools to employ one full-time counselor per 455 elementary students; one per 370 middle school students; and one per 325 high school students. However, the bill stops short of fully funding the costs of employing the necessary counselors. 

During the Great Recession, California eclipsed Arizona’s student-to-counselor calculus. In 2011, it posted a ratio of 1,016 to 1. As state education funding has recovered in recent years, California’s ratio dropped back to 663 to 1. That’s still not ideal, advocates say, but it shows the impact that can be made when education funding gets restored to pre-recession levels.

 

 

Arizona has begun to restore some funding, too. This year, Gov. Ducey’s budget included $12 million over the next two years for 200 new school counselors and social workers -- the first time in Arizona history that a governor has set aside money specifically for school counselors. Additionally, the Arizona Legislature last month approved $60 million over three years for “school safety,” which includes more school counselors. It also mandated that the state define the role of a school counselor, which was something that the two failed bills had sought to address.

Helpful though that is, advocates point out that it will take far more -- around $90 million a year -- to bring down the student-to-counselor ratio in a meaningful way. “I thank Gov. Ducey and always speak highly of him for doing that,” Menard says. “But it’s just a start and it’s not enough.” 

“For years we’ve done things a day late and several dollars short,” says Thompson. “Hopefully we’ll see more investments in the coming year. It took us a while to get up to 900 to 1, and it’ll take us a while to get that number back down.”

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