Stop school shootings: hire more mental health professionals

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Photo Credit: Nikole Pena | Daily Texan Staff

After the Santa Fe school shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott announced an initiative to enhance safety in schools throughout the state. Shortly after, he published the School and Firearm Safety Action Plan, which lays out his vision for ending school shootings.

According to mental health experts across the country, ending mass school shootings is only possible if we prioritize creating emotionally safe school environments and use preventative tactics. An effective approach to ending school shootings depends on a steady supply of public health professionals on the ground. 

Unfortunately, Texas is moving away from the prevention and public health method. Abbott’s school safety plan makes its priorities clear as early as the table of contents. The content under “Making Schools Safer” almost exclusively contains reactionary responses. It outlines ways to increase the presence of law enforcement in schools and harden schools in case of an active shooter situation. 

While the safety plan includes a section on prevention, it fails to prioritize providing schools with more mental health professionals. One of the few strategies included to provide schools with access to mental health expertise is the expansion of an experimental telemedicine program. The program is designed to provide coaching to teachers and staff as they help students through crisis. So far, the program has only been tested in rural areas and seems unlikely to be viable in urban schools.

The safety plan does reference more ideal measures, such as expanding Crime Stoppers and implementing Mental Health First Aid training. Both of these strategies would work to connect communities and empower teachers to help their students, but the plan fails to take into account the challenges of implementing such programs. 

“I would say that it would be nice in theory — mental health first aid — but it’s an eight-hour program. Most districts don’t have the time to put their teachers through eight hours of mental health training,” said Lara Hulin, a school social worker in the Houston area. 

Principals are unlikely to implement a daylong, expensive training when their teachers are already under duress from their various responsibilities. “(It’s an) unrealistic recommendation,” Hulin said. 

Hulin went on to explain that even if the district did train its teachers in mental health first aid, teachers would identify more problems and send more kids to the school social worker. “Instead of getting one kid (sent to me) every other month from a teacher, I’m going to get 10 kids every other week,” Hulin said.

 As the only social worker at a school of approximately 3,500 kids, Hulin’s days are already packed. More crises would make it impossible for her to do her job. Many public schools in Texas are already extremely understaffed when it comes to mental health professionals, specifically school counselors and social workers.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students. In Texas, each counselor is responsible for almost 450 students. Schools in Texas aren’t even required to have a counselor, and when they do there’s no legal limit to how many cases they can be given.

The single page devoted to on campus mental health professionals, page 19 of the safety plan, is titled “Better Utilize and Expand On-Campus Counseling Resources.” Unlike other sections of the Plan, this page lacks even the suggestion of a dollar amount from the legislature or other sources.

Even if enacted, the few prevention suggestions from the plan will have no one to implement them.

MacLean is a geography and advertising senior from Austin. Follow her on Twitter @maclean_josie.