KUSA — Schools nationally are woefully behind in employing the professionals most likely to intervene when a student shows signs of wanting to harm themselves or others, a 9Wants to Know investigation found.
The investigation comes at a time when a national debate rages about how to prevent school shootings that often focuses on gun laws and physical changes to buildings.
“It's too late at that point,” said John Nicoletti, a public safety psychologist, about installing security cameras and armed guards in schools. “What you're doing at that point is, 'How do we minimize the body count?'"
Twenty-seven of the 178 districts in the state of Colorado had no counselor in the 2015-16 school year, the investigation found. Most districts reported having no psychologist or social worker on staff that year.
When a mental health professional was on staff, on average that person would serve more than 320 students -- a number that far exceeds the national standard.
Schools across the country fair no better. One in four schools nationwide have no counselors; one in five districts don’t either.
Advocates nationwide, like Molly O’Connor with the Students for Education Reform in Denver, are demanding change.
“We want a full-time mental health counselor in every single school,” O'Connor said. “We need professionals who can identify the students on the path to being mentally unhealthy and figure out ways to help them with that."
9Wants to Know teamed with TEGNA stations across the country to look at the lack of school counselors nationwide. Even in those schools where a counselor was available, he or she was often overburdened. Eighty-five percent of schools did not have at least one counselor for every 250 students, according to data reported to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights during the 2015-16 school year.
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one counselor per 250 students, one social worker for 400 students, and one school psychologist for 500 to 700 students.
An analysis of the 178 public school districts in Colorado found none of the state’s 20 largest districts met national recommendations regarding the number of students per school counselors, school psychologists or school social workers.
The analysis also found:
- Nearly 75 percent of districts in Colorado were unable to meet any of those three standards in 2015-16 academic year
- Across the state, there were 956 students per school psychologist as of December 2017
*9Wants to Know interviewed numerous school district representatives after filing public information requests with the several districts along with the Colorado Department of Education. We also reviewed U.S. Department of Education data.
“Parents and community members are saying, 'We want more mental health. We need more school safety,'” said Ellen Kelty, a school psychologist and director of student equity and opportunity for Denver Public Schools.
DPS announced in August its commitment to become a “trauma informed” district by training all staff to recognize when a student may be showing signs they are dealing with a personal crisis.
A student was shot on the grounds of Cole Middle School two days prior to that announcement. In the week before, a 9-year-old boy died by suicide in Denver. He had attended Joe Shoemaker Elementary.
“When those types of tragedies occur, the whole school community is impacted," Kelty said. "The parents, the teachers, the staff, the students all deal with trauma."
In the last seven years, the district has more than doubled the number of counselors, social workers and school psychologists on-staff – and now meets one of the three standards set by the National Association of School Psychologists.
DPS now has one psychologist for every 611 students.
Find your school district on the map to see whether they met standards in 2015-16 or if they have updated the number of counselors, psychologists or social workers this year. Can't see the map? CLICK OR TAP HERE.
Data sources: U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, Colorado Department of Education
Most of the state’s 20 largest districts also reported an increase in mental health staffing since the 2015-16 school year -- though most still do not meet national recommendations.
'We don't have the resources'
“We're in this together to solve the problem,” said Littleton Public School District Superintendent Brian Ewert.
Five students at Littleton Public Schools have died In the last two years by suicide.
One of the district’s three high schools, Arapahoe High School, was also the target of a planned school attack by a student. A 17-year-old girl, Claire Davis, was killed.
The shooter then took his own life.
Ewert said school safety and mental health have become a primary focus for his district and most others across the state.
Last summer he and approximately 90 other Colorado superintendents were asked, “What is the No. 1 issue your district is facing?”
“And the No. 1 issue for 90 percent of 90 superintendents that were in that room was, 'Our families and our kids are in mental health crisis, and we don’t have the resources to support them,'" Ewert said.
Littleton Public Schools has also increased the number of school psychologists employed in the district and now meets the nationally recommended student-to-psychologist ratio.
Across the state, large and small districts are still finding ways to increase mental health resources for students and families.
“We want to get there, and we work every day to get there, but we recognize that there are going to be challenges to get there,” said Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.
“If you’re looking at specialists, competitive pay is difficult. There are more lucrative opportunities and the pool of people is smaller,” Munn said. “We have to have the resources to attract the right people.”
Aurora Public Schools has asked voters to approve a mill levy override that the district said would increase funding for mental health services and security. Voters will consider the measure this November.
Can't see our national map of school districts? Click here: tabsoft.co/2OZYvnW
9Wants to Know surveyed Colorado’s largest school districts based on student enrollment in 2015-16:
Academy School District
This district has increased staffing for school counselors and psychologists, and said some of the additional hires were made possible through grant funding.
Boulder Valley School District
This district has increased staffing in both school counselors and psychologists and said they intend to continue hiring more counselors in elementary schools, though the district still does not meet the nationally recommended ratio of 250 students to one counselor.
“The Boulder Valley School District recognizes that we do not meet that recommendation, but we are continuing to strive to meet our students’ needs. Because we take safety and the wellbeing of our students seriously, we have been working to increase our resources in this area,” said Randy Barber, a district spokesperson in an email.
Colorado Charter School Institute
The Colorado Charter School Institute is not a traditional school district, but authorizes 39 charter schools across the state. A spokesperson for CSI said in an email that 13 additional staff serving in counselor roles were added to schools since the 2015-16 school year.
Colorado Springs School District No. 11
The district added 17 counselors and 3.5 psychologists to staff at schools since the 2015-16 school year.
This district now has 37 counselors and 11 school psychologists but said in an email there is a shortage of school psychologists in the state. This district has an open position for another school psychologist and utilizes community resources to add support as well.
Greeley-Evans School District 6
This district reported an increase in school psychologists and social workers since 2015-16 school year. The district has also received grants to fund some of the counselors and social workers.
Harrison School District No. 2
This district has partnerships with community centers, including a school-based health center that provides counseling in one of the middle schools.
Mesa County Valley School District No. 51
This district increased the number of counselors, psychologists and social workers in schools since the 2015-16 school year.
Pueblo School District No. 60
This district has increased the number of school counselors since the 2015-16 school year and said they also use multiple community partnerships to provide resources for students.
School District 27J
This district increased the number of psychologists available in schools since the 2015-16 school year and also directs students and family to outside resources to support mental health.
St. Vrain Valley School District
This district has increased counselors and school psychologists since the 2015-16 school year.
Thompson School District R-2J
This district has added counselors, school psychologists and social workers since the 2015-16 school year.
“If you see something, or hear something, say something. What people forget, there’s another part to that. And that last part is do something,” John Nicoletti said.
Nicoletti, a national expert in police and public safety psychology and risk assessment, has helped schools across the country conduct risk assessments and said in most cases of planned attacks, there are warnings. Often, the attacker made threats. Schools need the staffing to be able to monitor those potential threats and act upon them, he said.
“Somebody’s got to do something,” Nicoletti said.