The Lead

Mental health services decline in schools as police presence grows: report

By: - March 7, 2019 1:09 pm

A vigil for the Parkland victims. (Photo by Fabrice Florin, WikiMedia commons)

Students in 2019 are more stressed and anxious than ever before, but new research suggests they’re not getting the mental health services they need in school.

A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that schools across the country are dialing back budgets for school counselors, social workers, and other mental health providers. At the same time, they’re relying more heavily on police to provide security and disciplinary support.

Like most states, Pennsylvania doesn’t provide adequate mental health resources to its students, the ACLU found. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia fail to meet the industry-recommended ratio of counselors to students.

The average school in Pennsylvania provides one counselor for every 380 students, the ACLU found. The industry standard is 1:250.

The ACLU argues that the retreat from mental health services couldn’t come at a worse time. Data from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention show that students today experience record levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide risk. The suicide rate among children ages 10 to 17 increased by 70 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to the report. 

Meanwhile, 72 percent of children in the United States will experience or witness violence, abuse, or lose a loved one before they turn 18.

The ACLU says that stronger mental health offerings would help students cope with anxiety and do better in school. They write:

The benefits of investing in mental health services are clear: Schools with such services see improved attendance rates, better academic achievement, and higher graduation rates as well as lower rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary incidents. Data shows that the presence of school-based mental health providers not only improves outcomes for students, but can also improve overall school safety.

Instead, the ACLU notes, schools nationwide have “hardened” their security systems in recent years.

As mental health services become scarce, students see a growing police presence on school grounds. Across the country, the ACLU found that:

  • 1.7 million students are in schools with police but no counselors
  • 3 million students are in schools with police but no nurses
  • 6 million students are in schools with police but no school psychologists
  • 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers
  • 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker

Data show that police presence in schools can disproportionately affect low-income students, minority students, and girls. Pennsylvania is one of seven states where black girls are five times more likely than white female classmates to be arrested on school grounds.

School safety has been a recurring topic in Pennsylvania’s statehouse as lawmakers respond to a spate of high-profile school shootings across the country.

After the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Pennsylvania’s state lawmakers created an anonymous reporting system for school safety threats.

The hotline fielded more than 4,000 tips in its first month, according to the AP, one-third of which were serious enough to pass on to schools and local 911 centers.

The state also provided $60 million in grants last year to help schools buy safety equipment or fund new risk assessments, and injected $10 million into the Pennsylvania State Police unit that provides security and risk assessments for schools, according to PennLive.

Read the ACLU’s full “Cops and No Counselors” report here

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.