Extra duties limited school counselors’ face time with students. A new rule is changing that.
Middle school counselor Denise Owens previously closed her door to students during one of the most stressful periods of the academic year — exam days — when anxious students often need to talk to a trusted adult.
Counselors across Tennessee, including Owens, are tapped to help coordinate statewide testing at schools and are unavailable to meet with children for weeks at a time.
It is one of many extra duties — cafeteria monitoring, clerical work and classroom substitute teaching — that school counselors have to do at the state’s chronically understaffed public schools.
“We’ve been thought of as just an extra body, but our training is in mental health counseling, group counseling, helping students,” said Owens, one of two counselors who serve nearly 800 children at E.A. Cox Middle School in Columbia, Tennessee. Extra duties “take us out of our realm. We just can’t do the kind of counseling we needed to do,” she said.
Starting this school year, however, a new Tennessee rule requires all public school counselors to do what they were trained to do: spend most of their time meeting with students experiencing academic, social or emotional problems and getting the kids the help they need.
The new rules require counselors — who by law must possess a master’s degree in school counseling — to spend at least 80 percent of their time working directly with kids. School counselors like Owens often are the first responders to children experiencing a mental health crisis.
Their role has grown even more crucial as some Tennessee school districts have cut the number of in-school psychologists. Unlike psychologists who typically spend most of their time evaluating and monitoring special education students, school counselors deal with the entire school population. At the same time, schools are seeing an increasing number of children experiencing mental health problems.
Mental health disorders now affect more than 265,500 kids ages 2 to 17 in Tennessee. “Right now more children are coming to us than ever before with mental health problems,” Owens said. “We’re dealing with bipolar, ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), kids already on medication. And sometimes this starts in middle school.”
Tennessee is now one of only two states — North Carolina is the other — that have such a requirement for counselors, according to the American School Counselor Association, which recommended the guidelines.
E.A. Cox Middle School got ahead of the new state rules, freeing up school counselors last year to spend more time with students. Despite the change, the school’s two counselors still face steep challenges in providing support to the fifth- through eighth-graders.
Counselors can provide one-on-one support but often have to find mental health professionals to intervene. There aren’t enough, said Kim Johnson, the school’s other counselor. “I don’t think mental health resources have kept up with the need,” Owens said.
Outside therapists have long waiting lists. Students on TennCare are often the easiest to find services for, she said. Students whose parents have private insurance or are uninsured have far fewer options. Mental health counselors with Centerstone, a mental health treatment agency, come to the school to meet with students who are enrolled in TennCare but cannot serve those who are not, Johnson said. And in an immediate crisis, counselors often have to wait hours for a mobile crisis team to arrive to assess the student for hospitalization.
About a year and a half ago, Johnson was meeting with a female student who said she had thoughts of suicide. A mobile crisis unit would not be able to reach the school for five hours, unless the school had a webcam to do an assessment remotely.
Robb Killen, supervisor of counseling and mental health for Maury County Public Schools, happened to be at the school with his laptop, which had webcam capabilities. The girl was able to speak with a crisis counselor immediately. Killen has since installed webcams at each of the county’s 20 public schools.
School counselors vs. school psychologists
School psychologists typically spend the majority of their time evaluating students who have been identified as potentially qualifying for special services and monitoring their progress.
School counselors serve the entire student population to help students overcome emotional and academic challenges and offer academic and college counseling.
Both are required to possess a special license in Tennessee. There is some overlap in duties. Professionals with either license may spend some time counseling students one on one, and both have some role in preventing and responding to mental health crises.[Read more at The Tennessean]