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The Learning Curve: Schools With Cops But No Counselors

Helix High students walked out of school on Jan. 22, 2018 after a video of a police officer throwing an arrested teen to ground surfaced online. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The ACLU released some disturbing data this week: 1.7 million students in the United States attend a school with a cop or security guard, but not a school counselor. Here’s how that breaks out statewide and locally:

California: 390,072 students

San Diego County: Roughly 11,000 students

The report [1], which uses data from 2015-16, also looked at arrest data that showed wild disparities between racial groups. Black girls, for instance, are six times more likely to be arrested in California schools than white girls.

But the main findings highlighted “a broad failure to hire enough support staff to serve students’ mental health needs,” the report concluded.

Only three (very rural) states – Montana, Vermont and New Hampshire – meet the recommended standard of having at least one counselor for every 250 students. California ranks toward the bottom of states with a 682-to-1 ratio. (Just because some students in the state attend a school with a cop but no counselor doesn’t mean there are actually more cops than counselors overall. California has 6,308 school officers and security guards and 9,123 counselors, according to the report.)

For some perspective, I called up Tracy Wilson, the counseling coordinator for the San Diego County Office of Education. Wilson works with counselors in all 42 districts in the county. She helped me understand how counselors can help a school’s most vulnerable students and how, ultimately, they can be a force for solving the academic achievement gap, between various class and racial groups.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WH: What was your reaction to the report?

TW: I’m not surprised. But I feel like the rules are very different for what those jobs do. I see school counseling as a type of prevention work. I don’t wanna say there’s no place for that with police. I support them too. But if you have more prevention work, maybe you have less need for the other type of work. It’s the counseling ratios in schools that’s the bigger concern. I think 680-to-1 is really high. Expecting one adult to connect with 600 students is just unreasonable. (The ratio in San Diego County is 653-to-1.) I can’t tell you the names of that many people. No one can.

Counselors, Wilson said, do three types of work: Academic counseling, career counseling and social/emotional counseling. When it comes to the preventative social/emotional counseling, Wilson said, it’s important to make sure kids get it early in elementary and middle school.

TW: If you’re talking about those skills, earlier is better. It’s not as easy to teach a 15-year-old those skills. That’s starting to be a little too late. Lots of things that happen outside the school, traumatic events, can happen very early in a child’s life. We have to help them see then that school is a safe place. Because if we miss that, then it just gets passed over and we move the child on. But whatever the problem is doesn’t get addressed. It will continue to be hidden. Until recently, we haven’t had a lot of counseling in elementary school and sometimes middle school. We’ve increased counselors by I think 32 percent in California. I can’t remember over how many years. But a lot of that increase is in elementary and middle school.

A high school might have 2,000 or 3,000 students and it will have five counselors. That’s still a high ratio. But one middle school might have one counselor trying to serve 800 or 1,000 students. In elementary schools, you might have one person trying to serve as many as three campuses throughout the week. (Some middle schools and elementary schools don’t have access to counselors at all.) In that kind of situation, you’re reacting. You’re being sent students who are misbehaving. But it’s very hard to do any of that preventative work.

WH: When you think about schools that have managed to close or nearly close the achievement gap, a lot of that comes with early childhood support services like counseling and also making sure kids are physically healthy. I guess what I’m saying is: How can we expect to close the achievement gap, if we don’t make a huge investment in counseling?

TW: There’s lots of research on this. Having more counseling in a school can lead to more of a sense of safety on campus. And that leads to increased attendance. And when kids are in school more, that leads to increased academics. Counselors can help students with coping mechanisms for things that might be happening inside or outside of school. You can’t learn when you’re in a fight-or-flight state. You need to have someone on campus to help you decompress and de-escalate and help get them back in the class so they can learn.

I will always advocate for more positions. But we also need to make sure that the framework is set up correctly. A lot of it is around honing and tightening skills and working with school leadership to make sure they understand our roles.

WH: Do you mean that not all principals know what counselors are supposed to be doing?

TW: Not all understand. A lot of it is based on experience. But unfortunately, not all counselors have a positive experience. Sometimes they are having to do duties that are not reasonable or in their scope, like overseeing recess or testing. As a counselor, I’ve been asked to do that. I can build relationships during that time and it can be a good thing. But it’s about making sure a counselor is there in an enhancement capacity and not to oversee the work, so it doesn’t take away from them fulfilling their actual duties.

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