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Counselors on “front line” of battle to keep students safe

I was encouraged to read that Polk County Schools have taken a proactive approach to school safety in the Feb. 18 edition of the Bulletin.

Every person reading this letter has an opinion about the recent school shooting.  Many think gun control is the answer.  Others will advocate for increased mental health services, or even good parenting classes.   

One mental health resource that I have not heard mentioned in the national debate, and is already in place, is the school counselor.

My daughter is a middle school counselor in South Carolina.  She is both an educational and mental health professional who has earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in counseling and an educational specialist degree in counselor education. 

Every day, she goes to the “front lines” to serve students who come to school carrying heavy baggage: physical/sexual abuse, bullying, substance abuse in the home by a parent, homelessness and more. She is the only counselor for more than 450 students which she explains is not an uncommon ratio.  The American School Counseling Association recommends a ratio of 1:250. 

Many school counselors are required to perform administrative or clerical tasks such as scheduling, maintaining/transferring school records, coordinating state testing, substituting in the classroom, lunch/bus duties and other tasks “as assigned.” Even if the student/counselor ratio is reduced, these tasks prevent the school counselor from performing the very job he or she is trained to do. 

Consequently, the counselor is limited to crisis response as opposed to prevention strategies. This is often true even when the school counselor is the only person on the campus with this specific training. 

She also laments the fact that when a student presents issues outside the counselor’s scope of practice or when counselors and other educators see warning signs that a student needs additional services, parents are not required to follow through on recommendations for outside  help. Services can only be mandated when a student verbalizes a realistic, direct threat of harm to himself or others, or performs such an act.

The same high ratios apply to school psychologists and social workers. My daughter believes that the benefits to making caseloads manageable, which would require legislation for increased funding, are that the solution is preventative in nature, realistically attainable and has many wide-reaching benefits for children and families.

Counselors usually know who the troubled kids are, and can often intervene if given the appropriate amount of time and resources to do so.

If counselors were allowed to counsel and build relationships with troubled students, maybe some of these horrific events could be prevented. Counselors should also be teaching conflict resolution, drug refusal skills, internet safety, how to cope with bullying, dealing with loss and, at the middle and high school levels, helping students to develop a career path.    

I’m proud of my daughter’s work, and thankful to her and other school teachers and administrators who work hard every day to not only educate our children, but to keep them safe.

Susan S. Speight, Columbus