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School counselors overworked; Creating void in mental health resources

“Especially with the size of our school here at Chiawana, sometimes it’s hard to get some of the students that are really struggling,” said Erika Martinez who works for Communities in Schools.{p}{/p}
“Especially with the size of our school here at Chiawana, sometimes it’s hard to get some of the students that are really struggling,” said Erika Martinez who works for Communities in Schools.

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Last week marked one year since the school shooting in Parkland. Florida that killed 17 people. 2018 was a record year for gun violence in schools. According to the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School who partners with the U.S. Center for Homeland Defense and Security, in 2018 there were 94 instances where a gun was brandished, fired or a bullet hit a school property for any reason. The next highest was in 2006 with only 59 instances.

As the gun conversation continues, so does the conversation about mental health resources in schools.

We might think providing mental health counseling falls onto guidance counselors, but counselors at Chiawana High School in Pasco say with added requirements from the state, they are being stretched thin.

“It’s a thankless job really,” said K.C. Bennion, assistant principal at Chiawana High School.

From the worries of growing up to the social pressures of fitting in, high school students are in a vulnerable place.

“If they’re not taken care of emotionally and socially it’s really hard for them to learn in the classroom,” said Bennion.

Chiawana High School is the largest high school in Washington with over 2,700 students.

“Especially with the size of our school here at Chiawana, sometimes it’s hard to get some of the students that are really struggling,” said Erika Martinez, who works for Communities in Schools, an outside organization contracted to work in Pasco schools.

The school has eight counselors on staff, but counselor Mary Gutierrez says she’s still pulling 60 to 70-hour work weeks.

“As school counselors, we deal with just about every issue that comes to hand,” said Gutierrez.

Gutierrez said her workload increased when Washington state took on common core.

“Now you’ve got state testing that you’ve got to make sure that you meet and even if you don’t then you don’t walk, even though you have all your credits,” Gutierrez said.

Washington high school students take the SBA and WCAS, which are standardized tests. Students must pass these tests to graduate. Gutierrez says this is keeping students from graduating and sending them into an emotional down spiral.

“They’re facing a lot of pressure and it’s sending them to the deep end and then we have to deal with all of that,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez said after telling a student they might not graduate if they don’t pass the test, she must address their emotional needs before they can move on. She said this takes time, and is a big reason why she works on scheduling and paperwork at home after hours.

The counselors aren’t totally alone. Pasco schools received grant money to bring in representatives from communities in schools.

“If we’re just all collaborating and partnering then it makes it so much easier to serve as many students as we can,” said Martinez.

The two staff members at Chiawana deal mainly with students that might not have support at home. They can link the student to different resources in the community which includes mental health help.

“Having someone in the school is huge because then they’re like ‘ok well now I have a reason to go and to finish school because someone does believe in me.’” Martinez said.

The Communities in Schools employees have only been at Chiawana for about a year, but they say they are helping students that wouldn’t have otherwise been helped.

“Having more people on staff to make those relationships with kids is really important to make them feel comfortable enough to share some of the things that they need,” said Bennion.

While the Communities in Schools employees do take some of the weight off the guidance counselors, the counselors are the only people in the school with the proper training to actually counsel students, so all of the student’s immediate emotional needs fall to them.

“If the mental health resources were on campus. I could say ‘hey I’ve got my kiddo I’ll walk them over to your office’ and then they could start helping and I could see if anybody else is going to need my help,” Gutierrez said.

Psychologists say the teenage years can be some of the most challenging for children.

One expert Action News spoke with said teenagers need the most mental health attention. If they don’t get the proper help, they can start acting out at school, fall behind in their classes or even start using drugs and alcohol.

“A lot of times pervasive disorders come about when someone starts to enter puberty,” said Aphrodite Beidler, mental health counselor at WSU Tri-Cities. “It is important that someone that can identify what the problem is can see it diagnose it and then treat it.”

Beidler said a student might fall behind and know something is wrong, but won’t have the words to put to how they feel. If a mental health professional was in the school, whatever challenge the student is struggling with mentally could be better addressed.

Gutierrez said the lack of resources lies with state lawmakers.

“You need to give us more resources so we can help them with the emotional piece of mind,” Gutierrez said. “Because if they’re not ready and they’re not emotionally fit then they’re not going to be able to go forward.”

She said the school board and state lawmakers need to take a more active role in visiting the schools to get a sense of what staff members deal with on a daily basis.

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According to Shane Edinger with Pasco School District, the district gets funding from the state for 36.986 FTE (Full-Time Equivalent) for school counselors. But, the district budget appropriates funding for 39 FTE for school counselors across the District. Pasco School District uses levy money to bridge the gap in funding and employ two more counselors district wide.

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