Despite Focus on Student Mental Health by the Texas Legislature, Counselors Still Not Mandated in Every School

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After the Santa Fe shooting in 2018, Governor Greg Abbott hosted a series of roundtables on school safety and corollary student mental health concerns. Among the proposals that came out of those roundtables was one that would increase the number of school counselors, those on the front lines of students’ emotional and behavioral health. 

The Texas Legislature passed a few bills this year which addressed student mental health as it concerns school counselors. They include HB 3, the omnibus school finance bill, SB 11, the chief school safety bill, and HB 18, which changed curriculum and training requirements on mental health in schools. However, none of these proposals require school counselors in every school, something over 30 other states have mandated. No such bill was filed this session.

What the three latter bills did do was put protocols in place that would ostensibly create more opportunities for school counselors, deemed the most qualified to provide mandated services to students. For example, HB 18 required the Texas Model for Comprehensive Counseling Programs as the foundation every school counselor should use, and this was complementary to SB 11’s new requirements on trauma-informed care that fall under the program’s purview.

One issue overworked school counselors must fight against is the amount of time they spend on administrative duties and testing, which takes time away from counseling students. One measure aimed to limit the amount of time school counselors could spend on non-counseling duties died in Calendars Committee. The bill would have capped the time counselors could spend on non-counseling duties at 20 percent. 

A third measure to set ratios for counselors to students of 1:500 also failed in committee, largely because of a large fiscal note, according to Jan Friese, executive director of the Texas Counseling Association. She added a caveat that the bill simplified the issue too much. Ratios in elementary schools can be even higher than 1:500 because younger students don’t require as much individual planning as middle or high school students, for example. Though the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, Houston Public Media reported that “for every public school counselor in Texas [in the 2018] school year, there were almost 450 students.”

HB 18 also requires schools to notify parents on their website when a school counselor or a registered nurse is working full time at a campus. In this case, no notice means there is no counselor at the campus. Advocates believe this could provide some accountability to parents who could then put pressure on school boards to hire more counselors. Some additional funding, via HB3 and SB11, allows school boards flexibility for pay raises and potentially hiring more counselors.

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