Counselors not part of a California district’s plan to tackle student mental health

Alison Yin for EdSource

Student mental health was declining even before the pandemic, research shows.

Faced with escalating student mental health needs, a California school district is trying an unusual new approach — one that doesn’t include counselors.

The Saugus Union School District in northern Los Angeles County, which in recent years has suffered a nearby school shooting, wildfires and growing political polarization, is cutting its four councilor positions and replacing them with social workers. In the fall, the district will have nine social workers and no counsellors.

The idea is that social workers are better trained to address some of the root causes of student anxiety and depression, such as poverty and other difficulties that lie beyond the classroom. said Superintendent Colleen Hawkins. They also have more experience working directly with families and connecting them to community services, she said.

“Our advisers have been invaluable during Covid, but now we’re back in school and facing different challenges,” Hawkins said. “We looked at the data and decided we needed to take a more systemic approach to the broader challenges facing our students and their families.”

Saugus Union is a middle-class elementary neighborhood in Santa Clarita, with high test scores and strong family involvement. But events in recent years have taken their toll on the district’s 10,000 students. In October 2019, the Tick and Saddleridge fires forced thousands to evacuate and the district to close campuses. The following month, a student opened fire at Saugus High School, killing two classmates and wounding three others before committing suicide. Saugus High is not in the elementary district, but many students had older siblings at Saugus High, and the victims had attended Saugus elementary schools.

Then in March 2020, Covid forced the closure of school campuses across the country. Schools in Saugus were relatively early to reopen, but a politically divided community has meant protests from both sides are common.

Students experience the full range of emotions from these events, said Tonya Nowakowski, district student support services coordinator and social worker. Anxiety and depression increased, along with self-harm, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts and inappropriate behavior in class, such as throwing objects or refusing to sit down.

“Mental health issues can happen to anyone. It crosses all socio-economic and class lines,” Hawkins said. “That’s why it’s so important that we build networks to help our students and their families be resilient in the face of tragedy. »

But counselors say the surge in student mental health needs is proof the district should be expanding its counseling staff, not eliminating them. While school counselors in Saugus spend some of their time dealing with school issues, most of their days are spent on mental health duties: meeting with students one-on-one, talking to classes, working with small groups, visiting families at home and consulting with teachers. Some have long-standing relationships with students and families who have lost loved ones to Covid or suffered other trauma.

Dismantling the counseling program will only further harm these students, they said.

“It’s devastating,” said Bridgette Martinez, a Saugus counselor since 2016. “How am I going to tell these students who have already lost and been through so much upheaval that they’re going to lose this, too? It’s a betrayal of our students.

District counselors strongly protested the firings, with support from the California Association of School Counselors and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. Both argue that counselors are crucial on school campuses, especially now. They focus on social-emotional learning, individual behavioral services, and general campus climate, among other tasks intended to make students feel safe and welcome at school.

Like social workers and school psychologists, counselors have university-level training in addressing the mental health needs of students. All three have credentials in student personnel services, although they have different areas of specialization.

“School counselors are highly sought-after mental health professionals who offer a range of services that other professionally trained mental health service providers do not,” said Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of Schools. Counselors. “It makes no sense for Saugus, at this critical time when mental health issues are at an all-time high, to consider ending its entire school counseling program. Not only does the Saugus decision conflict with best practices and decades of research on the effectiveness of school counseling, but it also comes during the critical recovery period of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amir Whitaker, senior policy adviser at the ACLU of Southern California, echoed Whitson’s sentiments. Unlike counselors, school social workers do not specialize in dealing with campus-wide behavioral and mental health issues, which means that ultimately far fewer students will benefit, a- he declared.

“There are huge flaws in the Saugus model that are very noticeable to anyone considering providing services to a wide range of needs in a school setting,” Whitaker said.

The state does not require schools to have counselors, social workers, or psychologists, but most have at least a few. Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom and the Legislative Assembly invested millions in programs aimed at bolstering young people’s mental health, which was declining before the pandemic but fell sharply when campuses closed. The state is encouraging schools to use their Covid relief funding to expand mental health services and social-emotional learning, including hiring counselors, psychologists and social workers.

Yet California still ranks at the bottom of states nationwide in its counselor-to-student ratio, at 1:601. Among school social workers, the ratio is even higher, at 1:6,000.

Saugus isn’t the only district investing in social workers. Los Angeles Unified recently hired 300 psychiatric social workers, bringing the district’s total to 750. The Mesa-Spring Valley in eastern San Diego County recently went from two to 16 social workers. San Francisco Unified has 120 social workers, 15% of all school social workers in the state.

Yet they outnumber councilors in most districts. Los Angeles Unified, for example, has more than 1,500 total advisors.

Paul Brazzel, president of the California Association of School Social Workers, said the financial windfall from Covid has led to a boom in hiring social workers in California schools.

But ideally, he said, social workers would not work alone. They would work on a team of counselors and psychologists, each with their own areas of expertise.

“In a perfect world, schools would take a multidisciplinary approach,” he said. “We are all qualified to help students with mental health needs.

Meanwhile, in Saugus, Martinez and his colleagues prepare for their last day of work on June 10. Jody Bolde, a counselor for seven years, said she would miss the students she saw one-on-one, the monthly classroom lessons. , the small groups of students she helps build social and emotional skills, and the countless other students and teachers she has worked with over the years.

“I love my job. It’s been heartbreaking,” she said. “I think the social workers are great, but I don’t understand why we can’t both be here to help the kids. “

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