AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some of the teenagers at Burnet Middle School show they are wise beyond their years as they explain the initiatives they have implemented to promote inclusiveness on campus.
They adopted the “Start with Hello” and “Say Something” programs through the Sandy Hook Promise nonprofit organization, which was created following the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.
“We’re trying to create an inclusive school, we are trying to create a community where you don’t have bullying, you don’t have hatefulness, and you don’t have kids sitting up by themselves at lunch,” eighth-grader Hayden Brown, 13, said.
Their work earned them national recognition from Sandy Hook Promise as one of the best models of the programs.
“All of our students see the importance of and how to reach out to those who might be isolated for whatever reason,” eighth grade English teacher Sara Te said. She organizes a group of students who lead the good-natured efforts on campus, called Interact Club. Brown is the group’s president.
“All this is, is just trying to get kids to come together read and really to put it in the simplest of terms to be nice to one another,” Brown said. “I think that’s a basic human instinct we can all get behind is to really be friendly and include everyone.”
“This shouldn’t encompass the political environment and all of the things going on on the state and national level, but this should really be is how people, how students can be united and be better friends and more inclusive to one another,” he added.
State lawmakers from the House Committee on Public Education released a preliminary report on school safety, offering recommendations for legislators to tackle in January. One item on the list focused on more funding for counselors, psychologists and social workers on campuses statewide to balance the student to staff ratios.
The report cites the American Counseling Association’s recommended student to staff ratios, compared to Texas’ actual data from the 2016-2017 school year.
According to the report, the ratio of counselors to students was 441 to 1 compared to the recommended 250 to 1. The number of licensed specialists in school psychology is recommended to be 1,000 to 1, while in Texas it was 2,890 to 1. The recommended ratio of social workers to students is 400 to 1, and in the state last year it was 7,548 for every social worker.
Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit designed to promote social and economic justice, reported in 2016 that high schools that maintain one school counselor for every 250 students have shown lower disciplinary incidents, as well as better graduation and school attendance rates.
“We know now from lots of research within Texas and across the country that kids really benefit from having people like counselors and social workers in their schools that they feel connected with and can really talk to,” Texas Appleseed’s school to prison pipeline project director, Morgan Craven said.
“If a student is struggling with a mental health issue, someone needs to be trained to recognize the signs of that and be able to respond to that and that someone should be a counselor, a social worker… or a therapist,” Craven said.
Ms. Te said there are 2 counselors to serve the approximately 800 students at Burnet Middle School. Seventh-grade student Padme Ramirez, 12, said she could benefit from more counselors she could “open up to.”
“I think a few more would not hurt us,” Ramirez said.
Claire Teague, an eighth-grader, said if there were more counselors on her campus, more students would take advantage of services. She said part of the success of the student-led programs is classmates help each other get through difficulty, but that can also take a toll.
“Students, we try the best we can but we’re still kids and sometimes we just kind of realize, ‘OK, I’m not really friends with them, so how do I do this?’ Whereas counselors it is like their job,” Teague, 13, said.
In a phone interview Thursday, State Rep. Ken King, who represents much of the Texas Panhandle, said lawmakers need to balance the intangible aspects of schooling, like mental health, with some of the physical elements, like hardening schools.
“The heart of the committee report talks about more money for counseling and mental health,” King, R-Canadian, said. “I think while we need to do our due diligence in protecting our kids and there’s certainly a material aspect to that.
King said he could see how lawmakers would go too far to harden schools, turning them into “prisons,” and “never address the real issue which is the mental health issue that we face today.”
“We’ve got to get counselors back to counseling kids,” King said.
In a statement Thursday, committee vice-chair Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, said increasing school counselor numbers across the state would lead “only to a positive impact for Texas students.”
“If the State of Texas truly wants to improve the safety and well-being of our students then investing in student access to counselor support must be a part of the proposed solution,” Bernal said.
King said it boils down to funding priorities.
“I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you how exactly the dollars will get spent but I do believe school safety will be at the top of the list,” King said, noting that the state is simultaneously figuring out how to pay teacher salaries and retirement benefits, among other items as part of comprehensive school finance reform.
“I think the legislature has an appetite this time to prioritize school finance,” he said, stating that no matter the topic, “when we prioritize it, we’re always able to come up with the money and fund it.”