STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT - SEPT. 14: Counselor Matt Roberto monitors students during lunch period in a gymnasium at Rippowam Middle School on Sept. 14, 2020, in Stamford, Connecticut. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

In May 2022, federal data from the Institute of Education Science confirmed an ongoing mental health crisis in the country’s public schools after reporting that 70% of schools reported increases in the percentage of students seeking mental health services since the pandemic’s start. School counselors have become especially important as districts report an increase in disruptions and violent behaviors during school hours, which educators and experts attributed to the high stress levels, financial insecurity, and unscalable loss of life experienced during the first two years of the pandemic. 

But in Rhode Island, rather than increasing the number of counselors in schools, state lawmakers introduced a bill to place two school resource officers (SROs) at every school in the state. The plan was presented during a state general assembly on June 2, 2022, in the wake of the May 24 Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

The issue of SROs wasn’t a new one: four years ago, Providence Student Union (PSU) student leaders started a campaign to remove SROs and replace them with school counselors and other health and safety staff after frequent reports of harassment and violence by the SROs from students of color. In June 2022, in response to the proposed plan to hire more SROs, the PSU board publicly petitioned against the plan and published an op-ed in The Providence Journal asking that state funds instead be used to hire more school counselors. Students argued that BIPOC students benefited from the resources offered by counselors. They were also disproportionately targeted by school arrests. In 2020, Black students made up only 16% of the student population in Providence, but they are more likely to be arrested in school, making up 30% of school arrests

Studies have suggested that school counselors play a role in preventing violence within schools, but counselors often lack the resources and time to intervene effectively. Nationally, school administrators have recently raised the alarm of a teacher shortage impacting districts. For school counselors, the shortage started well before the onset of the pandemic. In 2019, one school counselor was responsible for an average of 464 students. In states like California, the average was nearly 800 students per counselor in 2018. 

Precious López, the executive director of PSU, added that the compounded effect of underlying and untreated mental health challenges in BIPOC communities continues to threaten marginalized students. 

“It’s unfortunate that the powers that be don’t see that mental health is a pandemic in itself. That it’s something that’s plaguing our BIPOC community,” said López. “So with our campaign, while we’re trying to advocate to remove those police officers, we’re also trying to show the positive aspects of what mental health resources can do for students and teachers because burnout is real, not just for our students, but our teachers as well.”

PSU has a long history of organizing students for initiatives that aim to improve their education. After settling a federal class action lawsuit for the right to civics classes in June 2022, PSU students will be part of a Taskforce to help develop a civics curriculum for Rhode Island schools. They also advocated for and were granted a pass/fail grading system for the final semester of the 2019-20 school year to accommodate students during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gathering mental health resources 

Belony said their school is a welcome exception to what the data suggests. Belony’s school employs five counselors, each focusing on different sets of students, but every student should have the same kind of access to school resources and support.

“I talked to my friends here at PSU all the time that go to Classical High School or Central High or Mount Pleasant, and they’re not getting these things,” said Belony. “And I really feel like when we think about the future of our youth, and how we can support them, it starts with giving them and their families these resources.”

But according to López, for communities like Providence, with high concentrations of immigrants and BIPOC families, even starting a conversation about mental health can be a hurdle.

“It’s not something that’s discussed in the BIPOC community, right? It’s like, how do you deal with mental health issues? That’s not something that we do. That’s not in our culture,” said López. 

For López, giving students an early introduction to mental health resources through school counselors is crucial to eliminating cultural stigma. She agrees, however, that it can be difficult for students to access those resources. In the past, PSU has partnered with Rhode Island College graduate students who intern as wellness advocates at their Providence headquarters. But like with every nonprofit organization, López said, the ability to hire interns depends on funding, and this year, the budget did not allow for interns. Nevertheless, López noted the drawback allowed more innovation to fill in the gaps in support for students.

“We’re always trying to find different ways through workshops and other resources to provide our students with some mental health support,” said López. “Whether it’s a workshop that our students lead or a workshop that we lead them to with different organizations, I really focus on mental health and wellness.”

During the pandemic, pressures increased for counselors

During the pandemic, school counselors quickly became the only source of mental health resources, especially in urban and rural communities. A survey conducted by the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University found many school counselors felt unsupported in their roles. 

Counselors reported feeling forgotten by school administrators. They also said they worried about students they knew were struggling during remote learning but not having clear directions from school administrators on how to engage those students.  

At the start of the pandemic, counselors also said they struggled with how to offer their services to the estimated 50.8 million students who relied on virtual learning. In some cases, districts required parental consent for video counseling, and others needed parents to be present during the sessions, which created challenges with parents who were not home, hard to reach during school hours, or averse to their child receiving counseling.

Jill Cook, the executive director of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), said the most prominent challenges counselors face all deal with mental health needs that have emerged during the pandemic. And during that time, Cook said it was easy to forget that school counselors are not licensed therapists or psychiatrists who can offer long-term help to those most in need.

“There have been lots said and written about it, and there’s certainly a lot of research that indicated an uptick in concerns about student mental pre-pandemic,” said Cook. “But far and away most of the concerns school counselors reported since the pandemic are around anxiety, increased decreased discipline issues, increased absenteeism.”

Cook said that before the pandemic, the profession was battling an ongoing shortage of school counselors nationwide, which only made the problem bigger during 2020. Now, Cook adds, with fewer students enrolling in higher education and low rates of graduates with qualifying degrees, there are fewer counselors to meet the suggested student-to-counselor ratio. Nationwide, ASCA suggests one counselor for 250 students. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Rhode Island has the highest ratio of students to counselors in New England, while other states like Massachusetts will need to hire about a thousand more school counselors to meet the recommended ratio.

Now more than ever, Cook says that the role of a school counselor is key to achieving student success, especially for those who might be newly experiencing anxiety or mental distress because of the pandemic. What’s more, Cook said ASCA is currently working to diversify the field through local and state initiatives hosted by different chapters of the organization. 

“We know students benefit by having teachers and school counselors and educators who look like them in those positions,” she said. “And as our country has diversified, the profession of education has not. So the good news is there are individuals coming into school counseling and education who are bringing lovely perspectives and diversity. But there’s a long way to go. We know it from our own membership. We’re not there yet.”

Cook said there is a silver lining to the increased awareness of mental health issues created by the pandemic. States governments have funded mental wellness initiatives and have recruited more school counselors to work in struggling districts.

States like Connecticut took steps toward empowering students to recognize mental health struggles by passing legislation in 2021 that allows students to take mental wellness days during the school year. And while Connecticut is one of 12 states to allow mental wellness days legally, few students are aware of the initiative.

For PSU Co-director Eugenie Belony, advocating for more school counselors and using the resources offered by organizations like PSU is a start to serving Providence students better. Eventually, however, Belony believes more intentional action from school leaders and local government will be essential to ensure BIPOC students receive academic and emotional support in their public schools.

“Yes, we love the community, we work with the community, but we do it so much that it sometimes feels like the schools are lacking,” said Belony. “I think finding ways of filling in the gaps through community involvement is great, but something more could be done to hold schools accountable.”

Kio Herrera is a reporter based in New York City. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Toni Stabile Investigative Journalism Fellow. Her previous...