In the old days, a guidance counselor would work mostly in high schools, helping students set up their class schedules and decide what they’ll do after graduation.
But today’s school counselors have broader responsibilities, including being trained to recognize mental health issues in students before a crisis occurs.
The counselors play an integral role, but they’re in short supply and woefully unrepresented in schools, state data show, even as violence has shattered the notion that schools are safe and students remain stigmatized by mental health problems.
On average, school counselors statewide have double the caseload recommended by experts in the field.
Rebecca Schumacher, executive director of the Florida School Counselor Association, called the situation both alarming and inequitable.
“There are some schools that don’t have any school counselors,” she says.
The issue of understaffed counselors at public schools comes at a time when the 2018 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is still raw with emotion. In the aftermath of shootings that killed 17 students and staff, two students who survived the Parkland massacre recently died of apparent suicides, according to news accounts.
The deaths prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis, First Lady Casey DeSantis, state agency heads and lawmakers to hold a discussion last week about mental health services and suicide prevention for schoolchildren, veterans and other adults.
The officials discussed numerous initiatives, and Gov. DeSantis called for unity across state agencies in tackling mental health problems, where solutions have been elusive.
The problem isn’t going away, the governor said. “We’ve got to do what we can do to deal with the problem…it affects families, it affects communities. Ultimately it affects our success as a state.”
No one at the meeting mentioned the issue of understaffed school counselors.
But it came up in the Legislature earlier this year when a state Senate committee held a session about school-related mental health.
Democratic state Sen. Bill Montford, who represents a broad area of North Florida, including the state capital, grilled state officials about the number of counselors in schools. Montford also is chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
“How many personnel (counselors) do you have in a typical school that can provide these services?” Montford asked. “What I’m learning is that we are understaffed in schools to be able to address the mental health issues that exist at these schools.”
Montford asked: What is the ratio of students to counselors at Florida schools?
The answer was about 500 students to 1 counselor, said Jacob Oliva, who oversees the Florida Department of Education’s division of public schools.
That’s double the caseload recommended by the American School Counselor Association — a ratio of 250 students to 1 counselor.
The Florida Phoenix used state Department of Education enrollment and school personnel data to calculate the ratio of students to school counselors for each of the 67 school districts and found more detail.
For instance, not one district had the recommended ratio of 250 students to one counselor. Overall, 21 districts had ratios of more than 500 students for every one counselor. And in a handful of districts, the ratio was nearly 700 students to one counselor.
Only 11 districts had ratios below 400 students to one counselor, according to the data, including the Collier County Public Schools, where administrators have made the issue a priority.
The Collier district has full-time counselors in every elementary school and more than one in middle and high schools. The district also is increasing the number of school psychologists and social workers, and would like to include even more personnel, says Karen Stelmacki, the executive director who oversees the district’s student support services.
In discussions with schools, Stelmacki says, staffers “bring up the intense needs of students in the mental health, social-emotional arena, and how they feel strongly that we need more full time school psychologists, and there’s definitely that desire to have more mental health professionals that are full time on the campus.”
Districts across the state received about $69.2 million this school year for mental health assistance in schools. The state Senate wants to increase that amount to $100 million for next school year; the House is keeping the same figure of $69.2 million for right now – the two chambers will likely negotiate over the matter as lawmakers build a state budget.
The governor will have to approve the amount. Last week, DeSantis was asked about the millions the state has spent on mental health, and he said, “It’s not clear to me how effective that’s been,” adding that he convened the mental health listening sessions to investigate the issue more.
What is clear is that some progress has been made on increasing counseling staff, after districts received dollars from the $69.2 -million pot for this school year.
Almost half the districts improved their ratio of counselors to students, in part because they added more counselors, the data show.
But in some cases, districts decreased the number of counselors but added positions for school psychologists and social workers instead. Psychologists, social workers, and counselors are all involved in helping students with mental health issues, but the number of counselors in schools is the highest – more than 6,000 statewide.
Schumacher, executive director of the Florida School Counselor Association, says her group has made several efforts to boost the number of school counselors and reduce the ratio of students to counselors.
But it would likely take millions to get the ratio down to the recommended ratio of 250 students for every one counselor.
A couple of years ago, the association pushed for ratios in the 300-350 students to one counselor range, but lawmakers didn’t make it happen. Other legislative attempts failed as well.
“Counselors are there five days a week, on the front line. They really have the pulse of the heartbeat of the schools,” Schumacher says. Yet the issue does not appear to be a priority.
“If we wonder why we have issues in schools around safety, we have no further to go than to look at the number of support services in school and we see a huge gap,” Schumacher says. “The more hands on deck, the more these kids will be successful.”