by Colleen Flaherty
Reed Scott-Schwalbach is a foreign language teacher in an Oregon high school. Last fall, several of her students were involved in a tragic accident that resulted in the death of a 14-year-old girl. After such a devastating event, Scott-Schwalbach was comforted only by the knowledge that her school could provide support to grief-stricken students.
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“I was grateful for a system in school where our counselors alerted us to the incident prior to the students being back in class,” said Scott-Schwalbach. “Then they provided direct support to our students as they processed the tragedy.”
This is just a single, significant example of why adequate counseling is so important in public schools. And these services are essential not just after a traumatic event, but on an everyday basis. Studies show and educators agree that having access to counselors and other mental health services is absolutely vital to provide a safe and secure environment for students.
President Obama and his administration support this idea. After the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut where 20 children and six educators were killed, Obama proposed more federal funding to hire more school counselors and psychologists.
Unfortunately, if Congress fails to reverse the reckless, across-the-board cuts that will slash $3 billion from education spending, not only will Obama’s initiative likely go unfunded, but many schools stand to lose this essential support staff.
Even in Scott-Schwalbach’s school, where the counseling staff has gone above and beyond for their students, they are in danger of cuts.
“We are already down one counselor, and manage along as best we can with four counselors for a school of 1,800. We’ve also cut our drug and alcohol counselor,” said Scott-Schwalbach. “Further cuts will undermine the delicate balance we have managed to hold onto. Congress needs to take action to create a solution to this sequester.”
Cynthia Massa is a counselor in a Hawaii school where deep cuts have already been made. Over the past few years, her counseling staff has been cut in half.
“I service more than 360 students in grades 7 to 12. Over 30 percent of these students are at high risk for dropping out,” said Massa.
Before the cuts were made, her school had a counselor that dealt with high risk and special education students, focusing on those in danger of not graduating. That position has since been cut and all the responsibilities have been assigned to Massa.
“I do at least two counseling positions as one person,” said Massa. “I now spend so much of my time with high risk students that I only have an hour or two a day for other students’ needs, like crisis counseling or college and career readiness.”
Massa has appealed to her district and fought to get more help for her students. However, in the face of the coming sequester cuts, Massa is afraid that her resources may be cut even more.
“We didn’t make our adequate yearly progress for graduate rate, and I know why,” said Massa. “I feel I may be forced to leave or retire. I have health issues exacerbated by all this stress, but it’s the students who lose. Students in my school are in need of the right services.”