Point of View

More counselors crucial to increasing safety in NC schools

May 6, 2013 

Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles isn’t a textbook name to many school counselors the way Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung is. But the words of her current single, “Brave,” resonate with students far more than those of theorists from decades past:

“Your history of silence/Won’t do you any good/Did you think it would?” Bareilles sings. “Let your words be anything but empty/Why don’t you tell them the truth?”

Beneath its anthemic melody and heartfelt delivery, Bareilles’ “Brave” echoes a truth every school counselor sees played out in myriad ways each school day. Whether it’s concerns about coming out or the news of unexpected pregnancy, grief over the death of a loved one or anxiety about not measuring up to everyone’s expectations, young people cope with a heavy emotional load even before they enter homeroom.

Add to it a world where classroom fights make YouTube within minutes, Facebook and Twitter become tools for bullying and attention deficits seem to be a modern norm, and today’s school environments can be where students can easily consider silence their best friend.

Counselors are trained to help students find their own ways to consider, challenge, even break the silence. But we can’t do it alone. Thankfully, the authors of a bill in the N.C. Senate realize this.

Senate Bill 589, also known as the 2013 School Safety Act, recognizes that school safety must go beyond just an increase in school resource officers. The bill, whose primary sponsor is Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, would provide $10 million over two fiscal years for local school districts to use for additional school psychologists, counselors and social workers.

Such a boost could go a long way toward reducing the high student-to-counselor ratios that make it a challenge to help our youth. (The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250 to 1. My caseload is 435 to 1. Most elementary and middle school counselors have ratios far higher.)

The bill also amends the General Statutes to spell out roles for school counselors long recommended by professional organizations such as the American School Counselor Association, including a proviso that counselors spend at least 80 percent of their time providing direct services to students. That time explicitly would exclude the coordination of standardized testing, a time-sapping role that prevents many counselors from attending to students’ academic, personal and career concerns.

The bill, which passed first reading, has been referred to the Senate education committee. A similar bill in the House advanced, but both the funding for additional counselors and the language addressing counselor responsibilities were cut beforehand. Some legislators have expressed concerns about the costs of such appropriations.

In tough economic times, it’s easy to understand such concerns. Still, in the wake of rising concerns over school safety, groups such as the National Rifle Association called for a greater focus on mental health. If legislators of all political affiliations are willing to put public money behind their words, school mental health specialists may be able to make some headway in addressing the needs of a challenging population.

As counselors look for legislative help, Bareilles’ chorus can’t help but echo in our ears: “Say what you want to say/And let the words fall out, honestly/I want to see you be brave.”

Chuck Small, a former News & Observer editor, is a counselor at Enloe High School in Raleigh.

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