Public school districts statewide and in the Pikes Peak region need to hire thousands of counselors and other mental health professionals to meet national staffing standards, according to a Gazette analysis of data from a 2019 Mental Health Colorado report.

At least two-thirds of the state’s public-school children attend districts that fall far short of nationally recommended student-to-staff ratios for school-based psychologists, social workers, nurses and counselors, the examination shows.

Of the 33 school districts statewide that did not meet the industry-suggested ratios for any of the four professions, one-fourth of those, or eight districts, are in El Paso County.

The disparities are wide overall, said Sarah Davidon, director of research and child and adolescent strategy for Mental Health Colorado, an organization that advocates for the more than 1 million Coloradans who have mental health and substance problems.

“School districts in El Paso and Teller counties do reflect districts across the state, with some gaps being larger than others,” Davidon said.

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It’s not that school districts don’t want to follow what’s been identified as best practices, leaders say.

“We have a tremendously hard time finding qualified people to fill those positions,” said Superintendent Walt Cooper of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12.

“So it’s not just a matter of not wanting to or having other priorities that lead schools to be behind in that arena,” he said. “You’ve got to find qualified people to fill the positions, and that’s a real challenge.”

Davidon identifies the insufficient pipeline of school mental health professionals being trained to go into the workforce as “a major concern.”

Colorado has just two credentialing programs for school psychologists, she said. While there are more training opportunities for school social workers, “Even there, we have significant gaps.”

According to the Gazette analysis, El Paso County school districts would need to hire 168 additional full-time counselors, 89 nurses, 90 psychologists and 404 social workers to be at nationally recommended student-to-staff ratios.

Statewide, school districts would have to hire 1,658 more counselors, 536 nurses, 448 psychologists and 2,688 social workers.

Another roadblock, Cooper said, is that mental health professionals can make more money working in the private sector in their own practice or a hospital or clinic setting.

The salary discrepancy also hinders retaining mental health professionals in schools, Davidon said.

New challenges, greater demand

Though the Mental Health Colorado report was released in recent months, the data presented is from the 2017-18 school year, the most current statistics available from the Colorado Department of Education.

Since then, many local districts have hired more mental health professionals — but not enough to meet the standards.

A Colorado School Counselor Corps grant obtained last school year is funding two counselors for Edison School District 22, east of Colorado Springs.

But the extra staff still falls short of meeting the National Association of Counselors’ recommendation of one counselor per every 250 students, said Superintendent Chris Smith.

“We definitely need more counselors,” he said. “We need to push that threshold to make sure the emotional health of our students and even our families is taken care of.”

In addition to seeing students who have mental health issues, counselors also are responsible for assessments, scheduling, college and career preparation and other duties, Smith added.

Mental health professionals working in schools also face challenges that weren’t present in the past, Davidon said.

While school shootings and violence are rare, incidents are occurring more often, which can be “quite frightening” for everyone, she said.

“They’re addressing more complex issues, more online and in-school bullying and social media,” Davidon said. “Those are difficult situations.”

D-12’s mental health team has expanded to four full-time social workers, Cooper said. For years, only a part-time social worker was employed.

Threats of suicide, incidents of bullying and suspected drug use are the top three concerns students report to the statewide safety hotline Safe2Tell.

“It’s not because our enrollment is expanding but the needs our kids are facing,” Cooper said. “What we have to address is larger.”

Contributing to the personnel shortages, Davidon said, is the unintended consequence of a Colorado law legislators passed in 2015, the Claire Davis Act, which waives governmental immunity on acts of school violence and allows civil lawsuits.

School professionals may be reluctant to identify students as a mental health risk because they’re afraid of being held liable for students’ actions, she said.

School districts are required to prove they used “reasonable care” to prevent “reasonably foreseeable” murders, first-degree assaults or felony sexual assaults.

Penalties of up to $350,000 per victim, or a maximum of $990,000 for multiple incidents can be assessed in the event of serious injuries or deaths from violence and the school is found negligent.

Therefore, many districts aren’t willing to do voluntary universal mental health screenings for students, Davidon said, which are along the lines of the state’s mandatory vision and hearing screenings. Mental Health Colorado recommends such a practice.

Some districts like Woodland Park RE-2 are benefiting from the School Health Professional Grant Program, which is funded by marijuana taxes and managed by the Colorado Department of Education.

Grants totaling $5.2 million awarded this year and $9.1 million in 2017 pay for additional school counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses and services such as screenings, counseling, therapy, referrals to community organizations and training for students and staff on behavioral health issues.

The Classical Academy, a charter school in Academy School District 20, was able to hire three full-time school counselors at elementary levels, up from one and a half across all elementary schools, increase counseling hours at the junior high and add a third psychologist at the high school, said spokeswoman Tisha Harris

Funding also paid for suicide awareness and prevention programs, staff training, vaping education and groups to address various topics in student health and wellness.

RE-2 was awarded funding both times, to hire a social worker for the middle school and now to provide mental health workers at all three elementary schools.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Laura Magnuson, stationed at Woodland Park Middle School, said she’s busy all the time.

“There’s no shortage of families and students to work with,” she said. “There are significant mental health needs for student and families everywhere right now, and there seems to be a lack of services in every community.”

Magnuson has focused on providing social-emotional learning, ensuring evidence-based practices are being used, buying curriculum, doing substance-use prevention programs, and working with families.

“It certainly has filled some gaps and added a layer of support to families and students that didn’t exist in this robust capacity,” she said. “It’s a whole-child, whole-family model.”

‘Not the sole burden of schools’

The lack of mental health workers for students hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Many high school students see the need for more mental health services, according to a new report from ACT, the nonprofit organization that operates the ACT college entrance exam.

Fewer than half of 10th through 12th graders surveyed in October 2018, or 44%, said their school offered adequate mental health services for students who need help, and 38% said providing or increasing mental health services in their school would increase their feelings of safety.

Students attending suburban, urban and larger schools were more likely than peers in rural and smaller schools to indicate that mental health services were readily available to those who needed them, according to the report, titled, “Creating Safe Schools, Examining High School Student Perceptions of Their Physical Safety at School.”

The report recommends increased federal and state funding to “expand and promote the availability of school mental health services.”

Said Davidon, “There needs to be an adequate supply of community mental health professionals that serve children. This is not the sole burden of schools.”

She points as an example to the Douglas County commissioners earmarking $10 million to the local school district for school safety improvements, including hiring additional mental health professionals.

The decision to place a counselor or social worker in every school in the district was made prior to the May 7 STEM School shooting in Douglas County.

“While they can be part of the solution, schools can’t be the entire solution,” Davidon said.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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