On Monday, July 1, 2013, Connecticut became the first state to require that teacher preparation include a course in student social and emotional learning. This law was passed in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn. – the nation’s deadliest mass shooting of school children. In one way, this law represents an incredibly positive step; finally, one state’s legislation recognizes the intricate link between mental health and the safety a student requires to learn. On the other hand, it illustrates a sad truth about what it takes to pass laws that protect children: it took Newtown.
As a school counselor in Connecticut in the aftermath of Newtown, I know how disorienting it can be to respond to any tragedy involving children. As a former teacher, I am struck by just how helpless one can feel without the resources or knowledge to provide for the children in your care. Too often teachers and counselors are the last voices heard in any conversation about protecting students. But not in San Antonio.
On Tuesday, July 26, 2016, state Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) hosted a counselor roundtable so that the perspective of school mental health providers could be included in Texas legislation to prevent cyberbullying. Called David’s Law after David Molak – an Alamo Heights sophomore who committed suicide due to harassment online and over text – this law is still being written, and Menéndez took the progressive step of gathering the voices of those actually “on the ground.” He plans to use the suggestions most prioritized by these professionals to help shape a law that will define cyberbullying, require schools to take action, and provide them with the resources to do so.
The ideas from this roundtable ranged from community education about technology to more transparent processes regarding reporting. But several prominent themes emerged. First, there are not enough counselors in San Antonio schools to deal with bullying. The Texas Counseling Association recommends one counselor for every 350 students (a 1:350 ratio) and the American School Counselor Association recommends 1:250. However, these school counselors told stories of much higher caseloads, with no accountability for schools to stick to recommended ratios.
Furthermore, counselors in schools are required to do much more than mental health counseling. A friend recently hired as a school counselor was told that her job would entail only 10% mental health work; other required tasks included coordinating testing for the STAAR test, career advising, and meeting with students regarding college applications. When counselors are asked to do things other than actually counsel students, student mental health – a key component in creating a safe environment free of bullying – is deprioritized and school complicit in the resulting lack of violence prevention.
Finally, what emerged from this roundtable was a shining vision of the ideal situation: There would be enough school counselors to care for all students; Counselors be freed from non-counseling duties so students’ mental health needs could be prioritized; Schools with greater need – take Title 1 schools whose children deal with the negative effects of poverty and schools that service military families who bear the burden of parents’ deployments – would receive more counseling resources. Specifically, these schools would have an even lower ratio of counselors to students and receive additional funding for community outreach and school-based mental health education programs.
Bullying – even something as complex as cyberbullying – can be prevented. It is far too rampant in our city and kills far too many children. (A 2015 report by Mental Health America finds that 10% of youth in Texas admit to having attempted suicide at least once in the past year.) In addition to learning about technology and knowing what steps they can take to protect children, parents, and teachers need to be able to trust that school districts are doing everything possible to ensure that the mental health needs of their children are being taken care of.
It should not take incidents like Newtown to realize that school safety requires that students have a safe place to deal with emotions. School counselors play a vital role in making a school a safe place for learning, when they are given the chance. Sen. Menéndez acknowledged this by allowing the opinions of mental health professionals to shape the law designed to prevent tragedies such as David Molak’s. But for it to work, schools need to buy in. Legislators need to connect mental health to effective education. And school counseling needs to become more about counseling, and less about everything else. Because mental health is not just necessary for life – it’s necessary for learning.
More school counselors; more time for these counselors to focus on mental health and bullying prevention. This is what it would take to protect our children. Is Texas willing to do it?
For more resources on combatting cyberbullying, contact United Communities of San Antonio (UCSA), a local organization that promotes understanding and respect to eliminate bullying, prejudice, and racism. Their programs serve both perpetrators and victims of bullying and can be found here.
Top image: Pieces of art at the downtown square in Newtown, Conn. serve as a tribute to the 20 children and six adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Photo by Laura Beth Wallace.