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November 20, 2018

State Leaders Have Opportunity to Prioritize Prevention in School Safety Debate

Last Wednesday, the House Select Committee on School Safety had their final meeting to discuss the 24 priority recommendations put forth by House Speaker Kirk Cox. The wide-ranging proposals include increasing grant funds for school security equipment, requiring school divisions that receive funding through the School Resource Officer Grants Program to have an established agreement with local law enforcement, and requiring school counselors to spend a majority of their time providing direct services to students.

While covering a lot of ground, one key priority absent from the recommendations put forth by the speaker is additional funding for counseling and mental health staff.

School counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals are vital for supporting the social and mental health needs of all students in ways that promote positive school climate and environments that feel safe for all members of the school community. Ensuring student safety requires schools to take a broad approach that meets the needs of all students, keeps all students engaged in the school community, and prevents bullying, harassment, and discrimination. They also play essential roles in reducing the use of exclusionary discipline and helping students achieve academic and career success.


Yet manageable caseloads are crucial for achieving these desired results. Studies show that schools with lower student caseloads for counselors have better graduation rates, higher attendance, and fewer disciplinary incidents than those that do not, especially in high-poverty schools. Proactively identifying student behavior challenges and implementing evidence-based alternatives to school exclusion takes time, and that is something school counselors with excessive caseloads can not afford every student.

The national model put forward by the American School Counselor Association recommends caseloads of one counselor for every 250 students, and evidence shows better outcomes for students in high-poverty schools below this threshold. Yet in Virginia, average caseloads are well above that standard and have recently reached as high as 385 students per counselor – growing by almost 30 percent since 2008. Not only does that number exceed recommended standards, it’s also above many of our neighboring states, including West Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and Tennessee. Even more worrying, caseloads for counselors in certain schools go well above the statewide average – reaching more than 1,000 students per counselor.

The Virginia Board of Education has recommended that the General Assembly adopt the national standard of one counselor for every 250 students, and the House Select Committee on School Safety examined proposals to do that. Yet, ultimately, leadership in the committee decided the price tag to the state of $82.4 million is too high, and a less expensive alternative would be to increase the number of administrative staff in schools to ease the time constraints of counselors. While many counselors will welcome the administrative assistance, that does not increase the number of trained counseling and mental health staff in schools or reduce their growing caseloads.

The Governor is currently considering a proposal from the Virginia Department of Education to phase-in improvements to the counselor-student ratio to meet the desired standard of one counselor for every 250 students by 2022. This phased approach would reduce the initial financial burden to the state and local governments and give schools time to hire the additional school counselors.

Given the growing state economy, increasing budget revenues, and new available revenues, state leaders are positioned to make these needed investments in counseling and mental health professionals, particularly with modest, phase-in strategies before them.

If the safety of our students is a priority, then our commitment must go beyond words. Virginia lawmakers should take the steps to ensure that schools have sufficient counselors and mental health staff, so that every student has access to a trusted professional at their time of need.


Chris Duncombe

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