The Houston Independent School District School Board unanimously voted last week to not allow chaplains to serve as school counselors. Here’s why that’s a good thing.
The Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 763 last year, which would enable school districts to hire religious officials as school counselors. All Texas school districts are required to vote on the subject by March 1. Opponents of the law see it as a needless encroachment of religion into public schools, a view shared by over 100 chaplains in the state. In an open letter to all Texas school boards, they stated:
“As trained chaplains, we are not qualified for the duties envisioned by SB 763. We cooperate with mental health counselors—we do not compete with them. Further, professions which help children with sensitive matters, such as therapists and police investigators, typically require special training on how to interview and treat juveniles. Few chaplains have this expertise. Finally, using the school safety allotment to pay for chaplains is wholly inappropriate. Chaplaincy programs do not train chaplains on active shooter situations or to be public safety professionals.”
Texas school counselors are required to have a master’s degree. Previously, they also needed two years of classroom experience, but that requirement was done away with in the new law. Chaplains, as laid out by SB 763, need only to pass a background check. As the chaplains’ letter notes, their training does not include many required aspects of school counselor certification, such as state-approved training for violence and mental health episodes.
This means that chaplains working as school counselors will often have a fraction of the education or experience that a traditional school counselor will. There is also a demographic aspect to consider.
Texas is an incredibly diverse state. A majority of students (51.3 percent) are Hispanic. Nationwide, 14.2 percent of school counselors are Hispanic, but only 9 percent of chaplains are. Chaplains tend to be older, white, and overwhelmingly male, while school counselors are more likely to be younger, more diverse, and overwhelmingly female.
Surprisingly, there are more LGBT chaplains nationally (16 percent) than school counselors (11 percent) according to Zippia. This could theoretically benefit the LGBT Texas school population, which has grown to more than 200,000 in the last several years. However, much of the massive anti-LGBT backlash in public school now, especially efforts to oppress trans people, is religious based. As the vast majority of chaplains in Texas are representatives of Christian denominations, some of which have called for the execution of LGBT people, the odds of sectarian bigotry coming into play are higher than the larger portion of LGBT chaplains would seem to suggest.
Finally, there is the question of whether letting chaplains handle complex social and mental health situations is even helpful when the demographical parameters are correct. There is some evidence that chaplains do offer significant, evidence-based improvements in certain settings such as hospital stays. Unfortunately, the vast majority of studies on chaplain efficacy involve hospital and military settings, not education, and certainly not with chaplains fully taking over the role formerly occupied by counselors.
What is clear from the scant meta-analyses on studies of chaplaincy is that they can be quite helpful as an additional resource for trained social workers, counselors, and mental health professionals, but there seems to be zero evidence that they could replace these roles. Instead, the Texas Legislature has offered chaplains the chance to be the first point of contact for students having, say, suicidal ideation, based entirely on Christian vibes.
There is no solid data even hinting that chaplains could replace school counselors. Perhaps that will change if some districts adopt the measure, but HISD and other districts can hardly be blamed for not wanting to risk students’ mental health on a completely untried system.