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Arkansas governor proposes giving counselors more student access

by Emily Walkenhorst | January 11, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.
FILE - Gov. Asa Hutchinson is shown in this Nov. 7, 2018 file photo.

The Arkansas Legislature should repeal and replace a 1991 public school services law to require school counselors to spend more time working directly with students, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday.

More face-to-face time with students will help counselors address the needs of students suffering from abuse, neglect or some other trauma and refer students to the help they need, Hutchinson said after his speech to the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Superintendent Symposium at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Little Rock.

Some superintendents said after the speech that they thought Hutchinson's goals were good, but questioned how schools could afford to free up counselors' schedules to serve more students. They said they'd like to see a bill before passing judgment on Hutchinson's proposal.

Hutchinson is recommending lawmakers repeal the Public School Student Services Act, which requires counselors to spend 75 percent of their workweek providing direct counseling, and replace it with an act that increases that requirement to 90 percent. School districts would be required to come up with their own plans to make that happen.

No bill has been filed. State House Education Committee Chairman Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, said they did not know if any lawmakers were drafting such legislation.

School counselors are largely career and academic advisers and aren't necessarily trained in mental health care. Many school districts have hired social workers, who have more mental health training, but most don't have psychologists or school psychology specialists, according to Arkansas Department of Education data. Arkansas school psychology specialists also have reported often being used for individual student testing for things such as learning disabilities, rather than directly providing mental health care.

"Obviously these are not counselors that are trained in all kinds of mental illnesses," Hutchinson said. "They have to be the gatekeeper to refer them out to the community if there's a serious mental health issue."

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Hutchinson said the face-to-face service is key to being a gatekeeper and to providing better career and academic counseling.

"In order to identify those more serious issues and the health of students, they have to be engaged with the students directly and not tied up with testing," he said.

The idea sounded good to some superintendents, but they were anxious to see an actual bill filed.

"I think we all want that," North Little Rock School District Superintendent Bobby Acklin said. "Can we afford that is another question."

When counselors are freed up from testing and other needed things at schools, he said, someone else will have to take over those responsibilities.

"That's where we will wonder where the funding will come to replace all those counselors' duties," Acklin said. "If there's no funding for it, then I guess we would have to consider it an unfunded mandate. Right now, that's the way I would look at that."

Acklin said he'd have to see if schools can use clerical workers or noncertified employees to coordinate testing, a main counselor responsibility at many school districts. Being able to use nonlicensed employees would be less expensive, he said.

Hector School District Superintendent Mark Taylor and Western Yell County School District Superintendent Joe Staton also said they wanted to see what would be in the bill.

"I think overall this could be a positive thing for our school counselors to help these kids," Taylor said.

That's just part of addressing student mental health, he said.

"We've got to educate our staff, too, on how to identify a kid that's struggling with mental health issues," he said.

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key released a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Thursday in support of Hutchinson's idea.

"This proposal comes from a recommendation of the governor's School Safety Commission, and it is a critical component of the governor's education package," Key said in the statement. "This is a truly student-focused proposal that will strengthen the effort to meet behavioral, emotional, safety, and academic needs of students across the state."

School counselors often struggle to meet the 75 percent requirement under current law. Hutchinson said he's talked with superintendents and principals about the requirement.

"They say that's just not happening," he said.

Counselors are coordinating testing or curriculum or performing other administrative duties, he said.

The recommendation comes from Hutchinson's School Safety Commission, which submitted its final report Nov. 30. The commission focused on several aspects of school safety and included examining the responsibilities of counselors as one of its six mental health subcommittee recommendations.

The report highlighted Arkansas' high levels of at-risk youth, reporting higher rates of rape, dating violence, suicidal thoughts and other emotionally distressing events.

The other five recommendations to school districts included conducting school climate surveys; implementing a positive school climate program; providing access to Youth Mental Health First Aid training for staff who interact with students; establishing behavioral threat assessment teams; and creating coordinated crisis response teams.

English, the Senate Education Committee chairman, attended the Superintendent Symposium on Thursday and said she would like to hear more about how to make Hutchinson's proposal happen.

She's been hearing about counselors being overburdened for quite a while. A single counselor may be responsible for hundreds of children, she said. Schools have more testing now than they did 20 years ago, and schools are no longer expected to just be centers for learning, she said.

"We just keep piling more and more things onto counselors," she said.

Families are also different now, she said. Acklin, Taylor, Staton and Hutchinson all said students have more needs now. They aren't interacting with humans face to face as much as previous generations did, instead consuming more technology, Acklin said.

Human interaction is crucial, he said.

"The human interaction is lacking ... nothing takes the place of that human interaction."

Photo by Flip Putthoff
State Sens. Jane English and Lance Eads take part Wednesday June 21 2017 in the panel discussion with educators.

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