Lily DeFrank was a public policy intern at OK Policy during the 2019 Spring semester. She is a Graduate Research Assistant at The University of Oklahoma where she is pursuing a Master of Social Work.
Students in Oklahoma experience trauma at higher rates than students in any other state. When trauma is unaddressed, not only do students struggle in the classroom, but they are more likely to use drugs and alcohol and experience chronic health problems.
School-based counselors can help, but there currently are not enough to reach all students in need. Oklahoma is not meeting the recommended ratios of students-to-counselors, students-to-social workers, or students-to-psychologists. This problem is urgent, which is why the State Department of Education is requesting $19 million dollars from the Legislature to fund School Counselor Corps. Lawmakers also recognize the critical need to equip schools with adequate support and they have filed promising bills, such as HB 2905 (Rep. Kelly Albright, D-Midwest City), towards this end. Funding the School Counselor Corps and passing legislation to support improving mental health services in schools should be a priority for the Legislature this session.
Oklahoma students experience high levels of trauma
Children in Oklahoma are exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) at one of the highest rates in the nation. ACEs are potentially traumatic events such as economic hardship and alcohol and drug abuse in the home that can have a lasting negative impact on child well-being through adulthood. More than half of all children in the state experience at least one ACE and 28 percent experience two or more ACEs during childhood. This is especially troubling because the risk of negative outcomes increases as ACE scores rise. Exposure to ACEs increases levels of toxic stress, and over time this can negatively impact child development. Left untreated, students who have experienced ACEs can have difficulty processing information, managing their emotions, and even weakened immune systems. Children with four or more ACEs are more likely to develop depression, substance abuse disorders, obesity, and heart disease later in life. All these factors can make it more difficult to graduate high school and enter college or the workforce. Untreated individuals may also struggle with chronic absenteeism at work placing them at greater risk for experiencing poverty as adults. These consequences not only hurt individuals and families, but ACEs strain our state’s economy and stymie long-term growth.
Fortunately, providing children protective and compensatory experiences (PACEs) can significantly reduce the negative impact of trauma and chronic stress. Mental health professionals in schools play a critical role helping students cope with trauma and developing skills to overcome adverse experiences.
Schools are the primary place for children to receive the mental health services they need
In a state with insufficient mental health care, schools are often the first and sometimes the only place where a child can receive the counseling services they need. Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s school counselors, social workers, and school-based licensed professional counselors are overburdened. Oklahoma currently has 435 students to every school counselor, which is twice the recommended ratio of 250 students per counselor.
School-based mental health professionals not only provide one-on-one counseling services to students, but they can work with teachers to identify students who are struggling at home or in the classroom. As a result, they can respond to the student and their family. This coordinated trauma-informed approach can prevent minor issues such as poor attendance from escalating into a more serious disciplinary issue. Schools with sufficient mental health professionals often see improved attendance, higher graduation rates, fewer discipline issues, and improved classroom performance.
Oklahoma schools are eager for more mental health supports
School districts recognize the need for more mental health services in schools, and funding the School Counselor Corps would go a long way to support these efforts. EmbraceOKC is a collaborative initiative that is focusing on mental health in Oklahoma City Public Schools. The district is now implementing the first phase of its multi-level mental health action plan, which includes training for school employees and increasing trauma-informed practices.
Statewide, the School Counselor Corps would allow schools to hire an additional 366 school counselors through a competitive grant process. This funding is especially important for schools in parts of the state that have a shortage of community mental health providers. These schools often contract with school districts to provide such services. SB 1806 (Sen. Allison Ikley-Freeman, D-Tulsa) outlines the grant program and stipulates that counselors must spend 80 percent of their time providing direct services to students. SB1806 passed the Senate Education Committee in February. This is the right first step to equip our schools with the additional mental health supports they need, and it would also ensure that new school counselors have the time to provide counseling and therapy to students.
It’s time to fund the services our schools and children need
Along with increasing student needs, new legislation in recent years has placed greater demands on school counselors. In 2017, the Legislature passed a requirement that all freshmen complete an Individual Career and Academic Plan (ICAP) to align course work with academic and career goals. In most schools, school counselors are responsible for developing these plans with students, which means adding more time to an already overburdened schedule. In most schools, school counselors are responsible for developing these plans with students, which reduces the amount of time counselors can address students’ mental well-being.
The ICAP, along with additional new (SB 446 HB 2911) and proposed legislation (SB 1205, HB 3540) to augment counseling and mental health in schools, are important for students, especially those working to overcome ACEs. This legislation recognizes that students need support beyond academic instruction to be successful in school and post-graduation. Yet without sufficient school counselors and school-based mental health professionals, we may not achieve the intended effects.
This session, the Legislature should take action beyond well-intentioned policy and give schools the resources they need to implement robust mental health support in school. Now is the time to tell your representatives to fund the School Counselor Corps.
Policy Analyst Rebecca Fine contributed to this post.
Image Credit: U.S. Department of Education licensed under CC BY 2.0.