By Rose Hoban
Thousands of red-clad teachers marched through the streets of Raleigh on Wednesday asking for more resources in their classrooms, but that request extended beyond merely school supplies. For the teachers, one of the big asks was for more of the other school staffers who support their mission of teaching some 1.5 million of the state’s public schoolchildren.
One of the biggest priorities many teachers expressed was for help with dealing with the mental health needs of their students, a priority made clear in the stickers on many red shirts reading, “FIRST hire more psychologists,” or “FIRST hire more counselors.”
“It’s important to have those mental health supports because we are dealing with kids who come from different facets of life,” said second-grade teacher Jamila Smith from Forsyth County. “Especially dealing with trauma, in the classroom.”
Smith said that sometimes her young charges who have problems at home end up acting out in the classroom.
“Teachers are not trained, they’ll teach you how to deal with the discipline,” Smith said. “But we’re not the psychologists, we’re not those people who have gotten degrees to be able to handle that.”
And while the numbers have slowly improved for many of the mental health professionals in schools in recent years, teachers and counselors, social workers and psychologists say that they spend their days crammed with responding to crises, trainings and consultations, often at more than one facility.
‘Not enough of me’
“I carry a walkie talkie at school, I’m rarely just sitting in my office,” said Buncombe County school counselor Liz Parker. “I could be all over the building and could get someone saying, ‘Could we get assistance in room whatever’ and it may be that maybe I can’t come and give you assistance there because I’m assisting another student in crisis.”
Parker carried a sign reading “Standard 1C: School counselors advocate for schools and students.” She explained that this was one of the parts of her annual evaluation form and that her being in Raleigh was part of that advocacy.
At about 367 students per counselor, North Carolina comes in below the ratio of 1:250 students recommended by the American School Counselor Association, while the number is better than the national average of 455 students per counselor. North Carolina’s current rate is actually a drop from a 2007 peak of 407 students per counselor.
“We’re starting to understand more and more the impact that childhood trauma has on children who are coming into our schools,” said Parker, who said she feels like she’s seeing more kids with mental health needs at school. “If we don’t meet those mental health needs, then we certainly can’t meet those educational needs.”
Buncombe County is one of the school districts in the state that’s doubled down on “trauma-informed” care, taking the approach of trying to understand the difficulties that children experience at home and in their lives as they approach managing their behavior.
“I have multiple kids who have huge emotional reactions to situations because they’ve grown up in situations where they’ve felt unsafe a lot of the time,” she said. “So when something happens in the classroom, they have a huge emotional reaction to it, they become aggressive, they need support and when they’re in those moments, there’s not any learning to be done for them or for the other students either.”
Parker is the only counselor in her elementary school of 400 students.
“There is not enough of me,” she said.
Tim Hardin, who’s the head of the North Carolina School Counselor Association, said the legislature has improved some things for his members. In the 2013 budget, lawmakers ended the practice of having school counselors coordinating the administration of standardized testing in schools, something Hardin said was “huge.”
“It changed the ball game, to the point that other states were like, how did you manage to do this?” he said. That law also set forth that counselors should be spending about 80 percent of their time doing direct services with students.
“It was a huge win for us, we’ve built on that momentum,” he said.
More recently, the House budget that was presented this week would bump up counselor salaries. Right now, the state’s 4,200 counselors are paid on the teacher pay scale, and the House budget would bring the average counselor salary to $53,975. That budget still has a long way to go before becoming final, but he said it’s a strong start.
Hardin also pointed to a grant program created by the legislature last year, where districts could apply for funding for additional behavioral health personnel.
“At the same time, a grant is going to run out,” he said. “And it’s up to each district as to, one, if they apply for it and then, two, how they use it.”
There have been “vast gains” from the association’s advocacy efforts, Hardin said, but he concluded, “we can do better.”
Psychologists offer higher level of care
While counselors are in school buildings day to day, school psychologists encounter them at a higher level, both working with schoolchildren and staff to address the mental health needs of students.
“We do evaluations for special education and then we work with teachers and parents,” said Liz Martin, head of the North Carolina School Psychology Association, and a school psychologist in Guilford County. “We also do a lot of threat assessments, we do suicide interventions and interviews, we do individual counseling, we do group counseling, we often team with the school counselors to run different groups.”
Martin said she just wrapped up running a group at a middle school for 8th-grade girls with anxiety.
As with the counselors, Martin said there’s a profound dearth of school psychologists, which becomes an issue in an age where school safety has become a concern for parents and lawmakers alike.
“So, when you hear school leaders or legislators saying, ‘We need more behavioral specialists, we need more mental health experts,’ as a school psychologists, we are just like jumping up and down, this is our training, this is what we do,” she said.
Martin said that when she started her career more than 20 years ago, the needs were big, but when she came back after a nine year hiatus for raising her children, she said the contrast was “mind blowing.” There just seemed to be more need and more profound need.
“I would say it’s not just what stress the kids are under, it’s what the families are under,” she said. “If your family is under economic strain, it’s affecting you. Do you have clothes that fit, food to eat.”
She recounted walking by a restroom in a school and hearing a noise coming from inside.
“It was a little girl in kindergarten who was attempting to strangle herself in the bathroom,” Martin recalled. “She was so upset that she’d gotten in trouble and didn’t want her parents to find out.”
School psychologists also have gotten several large boosts from the Department of Public Instruction this year. One boost came when the state granted recognition to nationally certified school psychologists, allowing North Carolina to recruit more widely with fewer barriers to entry.
“That was big,” Martin said.
The other “very big” thing was when the State Education Assistance Authority recognized that school psychologists could be eligible for student loan forgiveness.
“There’s a reason why we’re looking for salary increases,” she said, “so we can keep the people we have here and lure more people here, so we can reduce the ratios, so we better meet the needs of the students in North Carolina.”