With school shootings on the rise, counselors say more help needed
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On any given day, Butler High School lists five school counselors available to help 2,200 students.
That's a ratio of one counselor for every 440 kids, which is much higher than the national recommended ratio of one counselor for every 250 students.
After Monday's fatal shooting at Butler, the district is making sure additional grief counselors, counselors and psychologists are at the school.
"I think it's fair to say that more lives than just the two have been changed forever," Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Dr. Clayton Wilcox said. "We're going to make sure we have grief counselors, counselors, and psychologists on the campus."
Tuesday, CMS again reminded students if they need immediate counseling, they should contact a staff member directly. Starting Wednesday, they'll be able to come to school for in-person counseling services. The district's also encouraging its staff to reach out to their free employee assistance program for support.
A district spokesperson said while CMS isn’t tracking the number of people who’ve met with counselors, counseling is occurring on a “need-be-basis.” Some people may meet individually, some in groups and in some cases, counselors may stop in classrooms to check in on a teacher.
“At CMS the goal is to provide support to staff and students who feel they need someone to speak to, and meeting individuals where they are,” Renee McCoy said.
CMS identified bullying as the origin of Monday's shooting.
Charlotte area schools rank above national average for counselor to student ratio, but
Public records show at the same time the country's talking about school shootings and mental health, we're not arming schools with enough counselors. While many school systems added counselors, psychologists, and social workers in recent months, records show all area school districts are still well below the national recommendation.
We found for every one student, there are more than 370 others, on average, who are also competing for the attention of one specially-trained school counselor. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 1:250.
"You just never feel like you have enough time," North Carolina School Counselor Association President Tim Hardin said. "One counselor to those high numbers, it can be challenging to sometimes become aware of those issues."
The Gaston County elementary school counselor said the state association's spent the last 15 years pushing for a better counselor to student ratio of 1:250.
"Then, as school counselors, we could most assuredly reach and interact with every single student," Hardin said.
While Charlotte's numbers are better than the national average, overall, from coast to coast, the picture looks bleak. U.S. Department of Education records show one out of every four schools most recently reported they didn't have a single counselor, including some charter and special education schools in Charlotte.
Several local districts added new counselor positions this school year in an effort to be more proactive and not constantly in crisis mode reacting. In addition, North Carolina dedicated millions of dollars in one-time grant money to hire 44 school counselors and other school support employees.
Rep. Carla Cunningham (D), Mecklenburg County, said lawmakers need to secure recurring funds to hire and keep even more counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses.
"I'm concerned about that. Are we ready to invest in that preventative side?" she said. "I'm not sure if we're there yet. I know I'm there."
The North Carolina House Select Committee on School Safety member thinks the state can take a lesson from its neighbors and consider mandated student ratios for elementary, middle and high school.
"All the states that border us have a mandate," she said. "We are falling behind. We are behind nationally."
South Carolina already has that mandate and out of all districts we checked, Rock Hill has the lowest average counselor to student ratio with 1:329. South Carolina requires a 1:300 ratio at the middle and high school level and a 1:800 ratio at the elementary level, according to ASCA.
In response to our questions, lawmakers in both Carolinas are promising they'll do their part to try and add more school counselors.
"Any of these issues that are dealing with school safety will continue," Rep. Becky Carney (D), Mecklenburg County, said.
She said she's in favor of improving the counselor to student ratio.
"I think that you'll find, there's pretty much a general consensus that this is a top issue that we need to continue to address."
Rep. Chaz Beasley (D), Mecklenburg County, echoed that sentiment.
"Supporting the mental health and development of our children should be a top priority," he said. "Guidance counselors play a critical role in achieving these goals. We should ensure that future budgets increase funding for more guidance counselors."
Sen. Joyce Waddell (D), Mecklenburg County, also told us she intends to continue pushing legislation aimed at adding more counselors.
Across the border in South Carolina, Rep. Raye Felder (R), York County, shared her support.
"Lowering the guidance counselor to student ratio is an important goal for the General Assembly," Rep. Felder said. "While current ratios are not ideal, we are providing increased assistance in other counseling areas. For the last two years, the Education and Economic Development Act has been fully funded which includes salaries for career counselors. Additionally, we continue to increase funding for mental health counselors, and now have counselors in more than half of the schools in the state...We have more work to do and the South Carolina House of Representatives is determined to keep the safety of our children in every discussion."
While school counselors are top of mind, Rep. Craig Horn (R) of Union County believes another member of school faculty is more critical. He is also on North Carolina's school safety committee.
"In consideration of the issue of School Safety, it is the School Psychologists and School Social Workers that may play the more important role," he said. "...I have since been working with the Department of Public Instruction to have the State Board of Education take up this issue administratively which is entirely within their purview. I have just been advised...that the State Superintendent has agreed to move forward with the State Board on accepting the Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) credential. Applicants who hold this will automatically meet the training and testing requirements to be approved to receive School Psychologist license in North Carolina. The long-term plan is to solidify this solution is for the policy to come back to the State Board on November 1 with action to be taken on first reading. I think this is a very important step in meeting the mental health needs of our students (and teachers) and addressing an important component to school safety."
Rep. Horn added he feels confident the committee will recommend "a series of actions" when the 2019 session gets underway.