Educator uses his experiences to build brighter, safer futures for all students
School Counselor Vincent Pompei addresses House Committee on school safety.
by Brian Washington
When Vincent Pompei began his career as a California middle-school teacher, students would often seek refuge in his classroom to escape from bullying or other troubles. He made them feel safe.
“Every student of mine knew that I would not stand for or tolerate anyone being treated like they are less than,” said Pompei, who, in addition to working 8-years as a teacher, spent the last two years working as a high school counselor.
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Pompei believes all students deserve a safe and inclusive learning environment and has traveled more than 2,000 miles to Washington, D.C. to give lawmakers on Capitol Hill his ideas on how to make that happen.
“Safe schools are not about responding after something happens, and it’s about much more than guns,” said Pompei, who testified Wednesday before a House Committee [ed note: pdf link] on the key roles nurses, counselors, social workers, and psychologists play in creating a safe school climate for all students. “Because if students do feel safe, studies show that they are more likely to learn.”
A safe and secure learning environment is something Pompei said he never had as a student. Raised by a single mother, who had very little money to make ends meet, Pompei grew up in what he called a “gang infested” neighborhood and was bullied relentlessly in school because he is gay. It began in 5th grade during his P.E. class, after several students decided he wasn’t “masculine enough.” They started calling him cruel, vile names—which, in Pompei’s mind, meant his classmates had discovered what he already knew, but desperately tried to keep hidden from everyone else.
“It was devastating because it was my secret,” said Pompei, who couldn’t understand how his teacher—who witnessed the whole scene—could say nothing. “I remember looking at my P.E. teacher with desperate eyes. Help! Please make this stop for me. She looked very confused, not knowing what to do, and clapped her hands and just urged everybody to get back to the game.”
As is the case with millions of students across the country, fear kept Pompei from talking to his mother about the bullying, and, with no one to turn to at school, he suffered in silence until he could no longer take it and attempted suicide in high school.
All through the years, I searched and prayed for just one person to make me feel safe. I never found that person during those years, but it drove me to want to become a teacher, and then a school counselor—to become that person for my students.
Pompei believes lawmakers need to invest in our public schools by reducing the ratio of students to counselors to help ensure that all students can get the services and help they need to develop a healthy mental well being. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends that there should be one counselor for every 250 students. In California, Pompei says that ratio is more like one counselor for every 1,000 students—a caseload he says, “not even Superman can handle!”
The National Education Association, which is made up of more than 3 million educators—including school counselors, social workers and other mental health practitioners, has included the ASCA’s recommendation in its plan for safe schools. The plan was submitted earlier this year to Capitol Hill lawmakers and Vice-president Joe Biden’s task force on curbing gun violence, which was formed by President Obama shortly after the deadly schoolhouse shooting in Newton, Conn. The task force has already submitted its recommendations to the White House.
However, Pompei also told lawmakers he believes educators need additional training—professional development—that specializes in creating a school climate that nourishes mental well-being as well as academic success.
“We have to look out for the whole child and not just look at test scores,” said Pompei. “Right now, I don’t feel like we are fulfilling our obligation to provide every single student the support that they need to thrive in life and be productive citizens because the focus right now is on standardize testing and academic success. That’s got to change.”
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