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School leaders say more resources needed for student mental health

Jamie Martines
| Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, 7:39 p.m.

A day after an expelled student killed and wounded dozens of former schoolmates in South Florida, educators in Pennsylvania say they're working year round — not just in the aftermath of an incident — to support students' mental health and connect them with the resources they need.

Some leaders in school counseling and psychology also say that they need more manpower to do so effectively.

A school counselor or psychologist would be the one to intervene if a student was in need of any degree of mental health or emotional support, said Sarah Daly, a former teacher and school counselor who is now an professor of criminology who specializes in school violence at Saint Vincent College in Unity.

“But so often, counselors and school psychologists are overwhelmed with putting out fires all day long that they're not able to,” Daly said.

Addressing those day-to-day emergencies — resolving a fight, comforting a crying student, sorting out a scheduling conflict — is important because it contributes to a student's overall academic success. It also could stretch counselors and psychologists too thin.

“Kids can go months and years without coming up on their radar,” Daly said.

Though schools may consider tightening security and adding other safety measures such as metal detectors, Daly said considering proactive social measures also is important.

“I think that the first major step that schools can do is to understand the appropriate student-to-counselor ratio,” she said.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to each counselor. The national average, however, was about 482-to-1 in the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year data is available, according to the group.

The same year, the statewide average for Pennsylvania was about 395-to-1.

States such as Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia mandate school counseling. Pennsylvania does not — neither do Delaware, New York or Ohio.

A bill considered by Pennsylvania lawmakers in 2013 would have mandated school counseling and required all public schools from kindergarten to eighth grade to provide one counselor for every 375 students and one counselor for every 325 students in high schools. The bill never made it beyond the House Education Committee.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of one psychologist for every 500 to 700 students in places where a psychologist provides services such as counseling, crisis response or behavior interventions.

The role of school psychologists varies across districts in Pennsylvania, said David Lillenstein, president of the Association of School Psychologists of Pennsylvania. Though there is a state job description, specifics are determined by local school districts, he said.

In the past, school psychologists have been responsible for testing students in need of special education or gifted education services, Lillenstein said. More recently, they've also recognized a need to use their training and expertise to work with students on violence prevention and with other educators on trauma-informed care. They're likely to work with smaller numbers of students in more severe situations, he said.

“Our students are experiencing more trauma — not just because of school violence — but in general, there's a lot more that kids are dealing with,” he said.

Where the roles of school counselors and psychologists differ could depend on the district.

“When it comes to working with students, the school psychologist tends to work with the more-severe situations, and with fewer students,” Lillenstein said.

Though school psychologists are trained to assist students with mental health concerns, those skills are not always fully utilized in many districts, he said. In addition, some districts are experiencing a shortage of school psychologists.

The situation is similar for school counselors across the state. Their job responsibilities often include career preparation, academic support and social-emotional support ­— jobs that require them to work directly with students, according to Lisa Maloney, president of the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association.

“Many school counselors are also assigned nondirect student services tasks and duties, such as testing coordination, which may decrease the amount of time a school counselor can designate to direct student services,” Maloney said.

Some intermediate units around the state help districts hire school counselors or psychologists. A district might contract with an intermediate unit to hire such staff because it is cheaper or because an intermediate unit is able to provide staff with specialized credentials.

Intermediate Unit 1, which serves schools in Fayette, Greene and Washington counties, employs about 50 school psychologists and 65 social workers who are contracted out to local districts, according to Charles Mahoney, executive director for the intermediate unit.

He said that he has noticed more requests from districts for social workers over school psychologists in recent years. This could be because social workers are more hands-on in the school, working with students and counselors, he said. Social workers generally focus on working with student groups, addressing students' problems at home or working with counselors, he said.

“But you can't work in isolation,” Mahoney said. Having all of these employees — counselors, psychologists and social workers — are vital to supporting students, he said.

The Hempfield Area School District has three full-time school psychologists and one who works part time, along with several counselors. Hempfield is the largest district in Westmoreland County, with about 5,700 students, according to state data.

“I think we've always involved counselors and school psychologists in working with children and both being proactive and reactive,” Superintendent Tammy Wolicki said.

Staffing decisions for school psychologists are influenced by time-sensitive testing they must conduct to evaluate students for special education and gifted programs, Wolicki said. School psychologists also collaborate with counselors to support students, when necessary.

The situation is similar in the Norwin School District, which had about 5,200 students during the 2016-17 school year.

In addition to several guidance counselors at each school, Norwin employs three school psychologists and a social worker who serves the entire district.

School psychologists focus on special education and testing, work with school staff on academics and behavior and intervene in the event of a crisis, according to Stacey Snyder, director of special education and student services.

The Westmoreland Intermediate Unit serves the 17 school districts in Westmoreland County. Though it might assist a district in the event of a crisis, it does not contract with local school districts to hire school psychologists, according to Joseph Sciullo, student services director for the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit. Hiring of both school counselors and psychologists is handled by local districts.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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