The legislature’s School Safety Subcommittee on Student Health heard from myriad mental health experts about the need for more school psychologists and other related services in North Carolina public schools.
On Monday, April 9, the student health working group heard presentations from the North Carolina School Counselors Association, North Carolina School Psychology Association, the Department of Public Instruction, and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The working group is one of two subcommittees formed from the House Select Committee on School Safety, created after the mass school shooting at Parkland, Florida. The Student Health working group will focus on mental health services. The Student Physical Safety and Security working group will look into school resource officers and school facility security.
Tim Hardin, president-elect of the NCSCA, said school counselors are at the frontline of mental health issues in schools. Counselors take preventative measures to address the socio-emotional, academic, and college and career readiness needs of students.
“Our goal is always comprehensive counseling programs that are preventative in nature. We want to hit this on the frontlines before it becomes an issue,” Hardin said. “We want to get ahead of it so we are not putting out wildfires.”
Cynthia Floyd, a school counseling consultant at DPI, said school counselors are often the first and sometimes the only mental health professional with whom a student interacts.
The ratio of school counselors to students in North Carolina is 1:386, below the national average of 1:482. Hardin suggested at least one full-time, certified school counselor in every public school to move the state closer to NCSCA recommended ratio of 1:250.
While there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of school counselors, the same can’t be said of school psychologists or nurses.
Several schools are without a school nurse. The ratio of school nurses is 1:1,086, though the State Board of Education recommends a ratio of 1:750.
The staffing ratio of school psychologists in North Carolina public schools is 1:2,100, well above the NCSPA’s recommended level of 1:500. Twelve districts don’t now have a school psychologist.
Heather Lynch Boling, president of NCSPA, said some school psychologists can’t provide comprehensive services because they serve multiple schools. Boling said some school psychologists are relegated to a reactionary role and called only after a problem has emerged.
Lynn Makor, a school psychologist consultant with DPI, said the number of school psychologists is declining as student enrollment continues to grow. Makor said there are 1,274 active licenses for school psychologists, but only 61 percent are working within a school.
School psychologists must have an advanced degree in school psychology before becoming board certified. Makor said the national average salary for a school psychology is $63,000. The salary range in North Carolina is roughly between $43,000 and $61,000.
Speakers suggested ways to reduce the shortage, from providing additional funding to hire more school psychologists to recruiting more students into school psychology programs. Other suggestions included allowing licensing reciprocity based on national standards and boosting school psychologist salaries to competitive levels.
“I think we need to be realistic and recognize we are three times the recommended ratio. Any changes are not going to happen overnight,” Makor said.
Mark Benton, deputy secretary of health services at DHHS, offered other recommendations for improving mental health services for students. They include training more people to handle youth and adult mental health first aid, letting local education agencies bill more services to Medicaid, and expanding the use of the Community Resilience Model.
Legislators also showed interest in studying peer-to-peer support programs and compiling a threat assessment standard. The next meeting is set for April 23 at 9:00 a.m.