After Florida shooting, Wake school leaders call again for more social workers, counselors

The school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead highlights a need for more school social workers and counselors, Wake County school board members say.

Students need to be able to talk to trained professionals after traumatic incidents, even when tragedies aren’t close to home, board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said during a meeting Tuesday.

“I think it’s important that it not be lost on us that had we had more trained professional school counselors, school social workers, school nurses in our buildings, we would be able to address the trauma our own students are facing as they also vicariously witness the school trauma in Florida,” she said.

Johnson-Hostler said she is pleading again for more funding for school social workers, guidance counselors and psychologists.

Last year, Wake schools announced a $10 million plan to hire 147 new school counselors and social workers. But the plan was put on hold when the school board got less than half of the $45.2 million budget increase it wanted from county commissioners. Last fall, commissioners offered $3.5 million for social workers and counselors if the schools agreed to match the money.

“It allows me and many of my colleagues to be back on our soapboxes around why we need more trained adults in our buildings who are there to support our students, both their mental and physical health,” Johnson-Hostler said.

National groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students. The ratio in Wake is one social worker for every 1,860 students and one counselor for every 630 elementary school students, 372 middle school students and 393 high school students.

Board member Jim Martin, a professor at N.C State University, said more social workers and counselors can’t stop gun violence on their own, but they could have an impact.

“As someone who goes into a classroom every day, I suspect I speak for almost every teacher, there’s rarely a day you don’t walk into your classroom wondering will it be my classroom; will it be my school next,” he said. “I think the same goes for most students.

“The idea that it’s all social work and psychology that’s going to solve this problem, no, no, no,” he said. “That’s not going to be the only solution.”

Martin then paused and tapped his right hand on the table several times.

“We’re probably not supposed to say this, but we need gun control,” he said. “We talk about our Second Amendment. I keep wondering when we’re going to have a well-regulated militia. Somehow, that part gets lost in most discussions.”

Martin praised the students in America who are speaking out against gun violence in schools.

“I am extremely proud of the students who are standing up and saying, ‘Our generation is going to bring an end to this,’ ” he said. “My generation needs to stand with you.”

Board member Christine Kushner said she recently attended a public school panel at Broughton High School in Raleigh. Among those on hand, she said, were state Sens. John M. Alexander Jr. and Jay Chaudhuri.

“Both senators Alexander and Chaudhuri talked about having more state-funded social workers, counselors and school psychologists,” Kushner said. “I think that’s a great place for us to start.

“Certainly, I think there was a lot of energy around the expansion of school psychologists and supporting professions to help our students’ social and emotional health and well-being in our schools,” she added. “As a board member, I’m certainly going to be backing that.”

Wake schools take many steps to keep students safe, said board member Kathy Hartenstine, including drills and school resource officers. What the schools don’t have is enough expertise in helping troubled youngsters, she said.

“Every day, we have students in all grades ... who enter our doors because they seek refuge from the turmoil and adverse childhood experiences they encounter outside of the six-and-a-half-hour day,” Hartenstine said.

Those students come from both poor and wealthy families, she said.

“I have a responsibility as a school board member to work tirelessly and with unabridged passion to provide the services that all of our students need to be safe, protected, healthy and good decision-makers in our schools,” she said. “For this to happen, I believe we must provide the counseling and mental health services; the interventions to teach students how to make good choices; the counselors; the equity in our programs; the social workers; the nurses; the psychologists; the training for our teachers and administrators; and the time to do the hard work.”

Johnson-Hostler said she was also thinking about the school system’s role.

“It is our responsibility for how we treat and address our students who are in trauma or in distress,” she said.

Board member Roxie Cash called on teachers, staff, students and mental health agencies to communicate about what they’re seeing in classrooms.

“When I first heard this story, I think I thought most about all the warning signs that were missed by so many people and the agencies that knew about it,” she said.

Board member Lindsay Mahaffey said she was in high school when two students killed 13 people and wounded 24 more at Columbine High School in Colorado.

“I don’t have the answers to this,” she said. “But I would love for school to be a place where a child feels safe and does not have to worry about this anymore, because I remember what that was like when it got taken away.”

Scott Bolejack: 919-829-4629, @ScottBolejack