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Texas senators agree on the need for school mental health services, but can they fund it?

MATTHEW CHOI | 7/30/2018, 4:34 p.m.
Members of a special Texas Senate committee devoted to preventing school violence acknowledged in a hearing July 18 the importance ...
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, listens to testimony during a Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security hearing on July 18. Marjorie Kamys Cotera

The Texas Tribune

Members of a special Texas Senate committee devoted to preventing school violence acknowledged in a hearing July 18 the importance of school counseling and mental health care, but questioned whether it’s financially feasible to expand those services statewide.

In the third of its four scheduled meetings, the Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security looked at possible contributors to violence ranging from social media to video games to shortages of school counselors in the state. Testimony from activists, counselors, researchers, school administrators and school staff universally emphasized the importance of providing adequate mental health resources to students before they turn violent.

But while committee members agreed on the need, they often returned to the question of funding. State Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat, said many urban schools in his Houston district don’t have the resources to hire enough teachers, let alone school psychologists.

“We don’t have nurses, we don’t have counselors,” Whitmire said. “We don’t have that kind of funding in HISD.”

Following a shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 people dead, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott released a series of recommendations to prevent school violence. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick formed the Senate committee to look into Abbott’s suggestions, along with other ideas. In past meetings, members have flirted with measures ranging from training teachers in a mental health first aid course to allowing teachers to carry rifles in school.

There are about 12,500 counselors and 1,934 school psychologists to serve the approximately 5 million public school students in Texas, said Stephanie Barbre, a specialist in school psychology. The American School Counselor Association recommends about twice that number of counselors, and Barbre said the ideal ratio of school psychologists to students would be about 1-to-700, which would require several times the current number of school psychologists.

Barbre discussed the impact a school staff member can have reaching out to students, recounting a story of her involvement with a sixth-grade student who came from a home with domestic violence and had cut herself. She felt isolated, but after constant engagement with Barbre and school staff, she was able to build a relationship with Barbre that drastically improved her behavior and sense of belonging at school.

“I would love to see some of our more dangerous students being included in our school settings,” Barbre said. “It would help us keep an eye on these students, let them be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Numerous invited speakers said that many counselors are tasked with duties outside their job, hindering their abilities to help students with their emotional and mental health. Adrian Hudson, a Houston teacher, urged committee members to provide funding for counselors, saying teachers can’t address each of their students’ mental health problems while also ensuring their students meet state academic requirements.

Sharon Bey, a school counselor of 33 years and representative of the Texas School Counselor Association, said counselors are often inundated with academic tasks and other duties, making them unable to focus students’ mental health.

“I believe they are the most misused personnel on what they are trained to do,” Bey said. “Sadly, our administrators are not schooled on the idea that counselors do have a curriculum, they do have a program to follow.”

State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said he wanted to give students more access to special education programs in order to ensure that students with special needs receive appropriate help. But Huffines questioned how much more funding schools need from the state to address their counselor shortages.

“School districts are capable, certainly have the authority to hire more counselors,” Huffines said. “The Legislature doesn’t necessarily need to be involved. It could be involved, but this issue could also be taken at the ISD level because they have complete discretion.”

This article was first published at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/07/18/after-shootings-senators-ponder-funding-school-mental-health-services/ by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.