Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students

Posted by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on April 2, 2019

Executive Summary
The U.S. Department of Education recently required every public school to report the number of social workers, nurses, and psychologists employed for the first time in history. Data about school counselors had been required previously, but this report provides the first state-level student-to-staff ratio comparison for these other school-based mental health personnel, along with school counselors. It reviews state-level student-to-school-based mental health personnel ratios as well as data concerning law enforcement in schools. The report also reviews school arrests and referrals to law enforcement data, with particular attention to disparities by race and disability status. A key finding of the report is that schools are under-resourced and students are overcriminalized.

Today’s school children are experiencing record levels of depression and anxiety, alongside multiple forms of trauma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among children ages 10 to 17 increased by 70 percent between 2006 and 2016. Approximately 72 percent of children in the United States will have experienced at least one major stressful event—such as witnessing violence, experiencing abuse, or experiencing the loss of a loved one—before the age of 18. School counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists are frequently the first to see children who are sick, stressed, traumatized, may act out, or may hurt themselves or others. This is especially true in low-income districts where other resources are scarce. Students are 21 times more likely to visit schoolbased health centers for treatment than anywhere else.

Schools that employ more school-based mental health providers see improved attendance rates, lower rates of suspension and other disciplinary incidents, expulsion, improved academic achievement and career preparation, and improved graduation rates. Data shows that school staff who provide health and mental health services to our children not only improve the health outcomes for those students, but also improve school safety. However, there is no evidence that police in schools improve school safety—indeed, in many cases they are causing harm. When in schools, police do what they are trained to do—detain, handcuff, and arrest. This leads to greater student alienation and a poorer school climate.

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