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On Friday, January 18, day five of the strike, tens of thousands of union members and supporters held a rally in Grand Park, outside Los Angeles City Hall.
On Friday, January 18, Day 5 of the Los Angeles teacher strike, tens of thousands of union members and supporters held a rally in Grand Park, outside L.A. City Hall. Credit: E. Tammy Kim/Hechinger Report

LOS ANGELES — Teachers are demanding more counselors and mental health support to better meet the needs of students, with Oakland’s educators becoming the latest to join in the red wave of those striking for better conditions.

Here in California, many counselors are responsible for supporting more than 1,000 students each, and this is quadruple the ratio recommended by the American School Counselors Association. In Los Angeles, teachers launched a historic strike in January, in part because 80 percent of elementary schools do not have a full-time nurse.

Why don’t schools hire more counselors? A report out today from my organization, the ACLU, shows that schools are indeed hiring: police officers. Instead of spending their money on a long-proven solution, counseling, they are putting their resources into enforcement and discipline, even though there’s little evidence that these measures keep students safe, much less improve their emotional well-being. When educators fail to address students’ record levels of depression, anxiety and trauma, schools become a conduit into the justice system, and then into prisons, instead of to a better life.

Related: LA’s school counselors strike back

The U.S. Department of Education, for the first time in history, recently required every public school to report the number of social workers, nurses and psychologists employed. Our study is the first to analyze and compare some of this data at the state and national levels. We found that more than 90 percent of the 93,000 public schools in our analysis failed to meet professionally recommended student-to-staff ratios in the 2015-16 school year.

The nation­al student-to-counselor ratio was 444:1. This suggests counselors are seriously over­worked, with student caseloads 78 percent greater than what is recommended by experts. Arizona (758-to-1), Michigan (693-to-1) and California (682- to-1) had the highest ratios, leading the nation on this discouraging metric.

According to the School Social Work Association of America, social work services should also be provided at a ratio of 250 students to one social worker. Our report found a ratio of 2,106 students to one social worker, creating a caseload for social workers nearly eight times greater than what experts recommend.

”Why don’t schools hire more counselors? A report out today from my organization, the ACLU, shows that schools are indeed hiring: police officers.”

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of 500-700 stu­dents per school psychologist. Our analysis of federal data found a national average of 1,526 students per psychologist. We found that more than 19 million students — 43 percent of all U.S. public school students — were enrolled in schools that failed to employ a single psychologist.

Despite the shortage of support staff, many schools are prioritizing law enforcement over the mental health of students. Within six months of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, more than $1 billion was added to school security budgets by state legislatures, with much of that funding for school police.

Our study also analyzed federal data related to school police to better understand this trend. Back in 1975, only 1 percent of schools were patrolled by police officers. Our report found that in some states over 65 percent of schools now have law enforcement officers in schools. This is problematic because there is no conclusive evidence suggesting that school-policing measures make schools — or students — safer.

A 2018 study reviewing the impact of federal grants for school police on 2.5 million students in Texas found a 6 percent increase in middle school discipline rates, a 2.5 percent decrease in high school graduation rates and a 4 percent decrease in college enrollment rates. Consider these harms in light of some of our study’s most important findings:

  • 1.7* million students in a school with a police officer but no counselor;
  • 3 million students in a school with police but no nurses;
  • 6 million students in a school with police but no psychologist;
  • 10 million students in a school with police but no social workers;
  • 14 million students in a school with a police officer but no counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker.

These numbers epitomize what advocates refer to as the school-to-prison-pipeline. Many schools are set up in ways that increase a student’s likelihood of entering the criminal justice system. Over-policed schools lead to 5-year-olds being charged with assault after throwing temper tantrums. Over 290,000 school arrests and referrals to law enforcement were reported by schools in the 2015-16 school year.

Our report found a troubling trend with referrals to law enforcement increasing by 17 percent nationwide. California alone saw a jump from 19,000 to 28,000 law enforcement referrals between 2013-14 and 2015-16. Our report also found that students of color and students with disabilities face police involvement and school arrests at disproportionate rates. For example:

  • Students with disabilities were arrested at a rate 2.5 times that of students without disabilities. In some states they were 10 times as likely to be arrested as their peers.
  • Black girls made up 16 percent of the female student population but were 39 percent of girls arrested in school. Black girls were arrested at a rate four times that of white girls. In North Carolina, Iowa and Michigan, black girls were more than 8 times as likely to be arrested as white girls.
  • Latino and Latina students were 3.5 times as likely to be arrested as white students in Rhode Island, and more than twice as likely to be arrested in Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
  • Native American girls had a school arrest rate 3.5 times that of white girls. Native Ameri­can girls are 12 percent of girls in Montana but accounted for 62 percent of female arrests in that state.
  • Pacific Islander and Native American students were twice as likely to be arrested in school as white students.
  • Black and Latino boys with disabilities were 3 percent of students but were 12 percent of school arrests.

How we prepare for and respond to children in need of support are choices, and research is clear that providing more counselors and mental health professionals is the best approach. Despite the Trump administration’s message following the tragic school shootings in 2018, there is no “crisis” in student behavior. Instead, there is a crisis of priorities leading to staff shortages and overcriminalization. Striking teachers also need better pay and working conditions. But the lack of counselors, social workers, nurses and psychologists coupled with the rise in school police has created a school environment that neglects our students’ needs. Schools, districts and states have to take student welfare more seriously.

*corrects number of students.

This story about the guidance gap was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Amir Whitaker is a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, where he is responsible for legislation focused on education equity and funding.

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