School mental health professionals – counselors, nurses and social workers – urged a joint Texas House committee to move mental health services closer to the students following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde.
A joint hearing of three committees – Public Safety, Homeland Security and the select committee on Youth Health & Safety – picked up the topic of mental health services available to students.
The focus was on what is being done for mental health and what people in Uvalde missed that led to the mass shooting.
“I asked the TEA commissioner, in a previous hearing after Uvalde, if there were essentially any ticking time bombs in any schools right now,” Chair J.M. Lozano told a panel. “Like the kids we talked about earlier, the kids that are dragging a bag of dead cats around town.”
In a House report on the Robb massacre, shooter Salvador Ramos was described as someone given the nickname “school shooter;” a dropout who flunked out of school after dozens of absences, was fired from part-time jobs and once carried around a dead cat in a plastic bag.
“You know, that’s just immediate,” said Lozano, implying the dead cat should have been a red flag. “And there was no one involved other than the school counselor.”
Other members of the panel worried aloud about the sharp increase of students who are suicidal or deeply depressed.
Members of the panel – include counselors who drove to Uvalde to assist the school district in opening summer school – insisted the school district had good people who cared for their students.
A crisis response team trained out of the San Antonio-area education service center was ready to get on the road to assist Uvalde within an hour of the shooting, said Mary Libby of the Texas Counseling Association.
Libby is a school counselor out of Northside Independent School District. Northside loaned its Communities in Schools staff to Uvalde to help them get through the four weeks of summer school.
“They were talking around coping schools, how to identify feelings, how to ask for help from a trusted adult,” Libby said of the skills shared by counselors in classrooms. “The number of students letting their teacher know, ‘I’m not doing okay,’ increased, and CIS was able to serve more students and, additionally, more families.”
Texas has moved forward in some ways: Lawmakers have pumped money into support services through Communities in Schools. Last session, they passed a bill to require counselors to spend 80% of their workday on actual counseling. And the Texas Child Mental Health Consortium was created.
Counselors are specifically trained to do early interventions, but they often are diverted to other duties, Libby said.
"Counselors are not getting into the classroom. They're doing master scheduling. They're doing testing. They're conducting Response to Intervention," Libby said. "It's like taking your football coach and saying, 'You only get to coach your team 80% of the time.' The other 20%, we're going to have you doing all these other things."
Lawmakers need to go further next session. Libby suggested appropriating more funding to lower counselor-to-student ratios; removing testing duties from counselors; and amending the Crime Victim Compensation Fund to allow it to fund the crisis response system, especially in areas with limited mental health services.
“We know, in many areas, there’s a shortage of mental health services. That’s even in a city like San Antonio, and that’s huge,” Libby said. “Families may have to wait weeks or months, and it could be too late for many families.”
Keeping support services on the campus – working with existing campus personnel – can yield real results, said Lisa Descant of Houston Communities in Schools.
“The real genius of the evidence-based CIS model and why it is so effective is that these supports are offered free of charge and within school buildings right where the students are,” Descant said of the program, which serves 200 school districts. “The proximity eliminates problems with accessibility, parental time away from work, transportation challenges and the cost of services.”
Because CIS is embedded on the school campus, working side-by-side with school staff, the CIS staff are trusted, familiar professionals, Descant said.
“So, when students encounter a traumatic event, they are able to turn to someone they know and trust,” Descant said.
Becca Harkleroad of the Texas School Nurses Organization stressed that emotional needs often manifest in physical ailments, especially in younger children. And Alvia Baldwin, who heads up guidance and counseling in the Houston-area Alief school district, talked about addressing both the student and the family during stressful times such as the recent COVID pandemic.
“It can’t just be for the student because they still have to go home to that environment,” Baldwin said. “So, we have to be able to support the student at the school – because that’s when we have them as a captive audience – but it also opens up those opportunities to support the family.”