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The Answer to Saving Kids' Lives Is Not to Hire More School Counselors

Instead, let's rethink counselors' duties so they can better help our kids.

Key points

  • Rates of suicide and school violence have increased dramatically in the past decade, which means students need help.
  • Professional school counselors are being used for administrative and compliance tasks, instead of implementing comprehensive prevention programs.
  • Instead of hiring more counselors, we instead need to ensure their time is spent on the life-saving work of supporting students' mental health.
Adrian Swancar/Unsplash
Source: Adrian Swancar/Unsplash

In my years as a professional school counselor, I regularly completed suicide risk assessments. My middle schoolers were often so desperate to escape the overwhelming challenges of their daily lives that death was the only option they could imagine.

When a student opened up to me about these thoughts, and I was able to refer them to a higher level of care, I felt extremely thankful for their vulnerability and honesty. However, I couldn't help but wonder: What would happen if I could get to them sooner, with individual goal-setting meetings, preventative groups, or psychoeducational lessons?

Reports of students with suicidal ideation have more than doubled in the past 10 years. According to Education Week, there were 25 instances of school shootings in 2019. And these numbers don't include children who suffer in silence, incidents of bullying, relationship violence, or physical fights between students.

Our kids need help.

And after every teen suicide, every school shooting, politicians and parents make the declaration, louder still during the 2020-2021 school year: We need more school counselors.

It's true that our kids are suffering mental health crises at unprecedented rates, and that we need trained professionals in our public schools to address these concerns on a daily basis. More counselors is certainly a great start — especially when some of us have caseloads of 600+ students.

Unfortunately, school counselors have become a dumping ground for every task that isn't automatically assigned by policy or law to someone else.

Duties of professional school counselors

In my experience, here's a breakdown of some of the duties assigned to professional school counselors:

  • 504 Coordination: Managing compliance of this federal program that protects students with disabilities from discrimination by running meetings, coordinating re-evaluations, contacting parents, scheduling meetings, requesting and maintaining records.
  • Testing Coordination: Preparing materials for testing, creating rosters and room assignments, attending and providing training, coordinating federally required accommodations for 504 and special education students — for the PSAT, Credit-by-Exam, ACT, SAT, every round of state testing, local testing like the MAP or District Benchmarks.
  • Duty: Monitoring the cafeteria, hallways, arrival, and dismissal.
  • Paperwork: From managing report cards every 3-9 weeks, to coordinating referral paperwork for academic intervention programs, to managing the master schedule, to coordinating data and documentation for At-Risk Identification.

Even if a counselor spends the bare minimum of time on each task, you can see that these non-counseling duties make it impossible to run a comprehensive school counseling program.

Why shouldn't we just hire more school counselors?

You might say that with more counselors, each individual would have more time with students, and be able to share these duties. Or what if you hire a counselor to focus 100% on the needs of students, while the rest of the team does paperwork?

It's the taxpayers' money. Would you rather pay for another master's-level practitioner at $50,000 a year? Or a paraprofessional to cover lunch duties and administrative tasks at $30,000 a year? Or give a $5,000 stipend to an assistant principal or teacher-leader to handle 504 coordination and testing?

Hiring professional school counselors to do duties that do not require our specialized degree and certification is a waste of resources for our underfunded public schools.

The best way to utilize school counselors

You might also say that, although the suicide rate and the number of school shootings are dramatic, those issues only affect a small number of students. Why should counselors spend so much time on a small number of students, rather than doing things that support the entire school? This question is fair but rooted in a misunderstanding of the training, preparation, and abilities of professional school counselors.

Source: NeONBRAND/Unsplash

Professional school counselors are essential in a crisis, but we also provide ongoing prevention and intervention. We can craft evidence-based lessons to teach students important social-emotional and 21st-century skills. We understand the basics of psychological assessment. We know about counseling theories and interventions, such as solution-focused counseling, cognitive-behavioral therapy, family systems interventions, and play therapy. We can implement comprehensive school counseling programs, which have been shown in study after study to dramatically improve student outcomes. We often have training to support students who have experienced trauma.

And this is important: We are the only staff members on campuses with this training. Professional school counselors are the only ones capable of doing this work. And if we're not doing it — that means that no one is.

After the next reported teen suicide or the next school shooting, everyone will once again turn to their line about needing more school counselors. But what we really need is federal funding for the 504 program, better allocation of resources to hire paraprofessionals, and streamlined job descriptions for professional school counselors aligned with best practice models of comprehensive school counseling programs.

So, parents, give your child's principal a call and ask her or him what duties have been assigned to your school counselor. And it wouldn't hurt to follow that question up with another: Why aren't you allowing them to save the lives of our children?

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.