Legislation to add more mental health professionals in schools advances



(The Center Square) — Legislation to increase the number of mental health professionals in Virginia schools moved forward to the House appropriations committee on Tuesday, with some challenges and suggestions posed by committee members and expert witnesses at the meeting.

The bill, sponsored by freshman Del. Michael Feggans, D-Virginia Beach, would reduce the ratio of counselors to students in Virginia K-12 schools from 325 students per counselor to 250-1.

Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, was quick to note that, despite efforts by the legislature to help them, some Virginia schools have struggled to meet the current standard.

“I guess one of the questions I have is… where are they going to come from?” Cherry asked. “We’ve relaxed the laws about who can be a school counselor to try to widen the pool, and yet we still don’t have enough now. So, how does lowering the ratio make it better that they should have two or three instead of one when we don’t have enough school counselors now?”

Several organizations testified in support of the legislation, citing troubling statistics like “one in three children have experienced feelings of tension, worry and depletion within the clinical range” or that suicide has become a leading cause of death for Americans ages 10-24.

Chloe Edwards, policy director for the New Virginia Majority and a member of the Fund Our Schools coalition, said the bill was a priority for the coalition.

“Virginia ranks 39th in the country for the number of psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed social workers, counselors, etc., to advance mental health practice in the schools,” Edwards said.

Edwards attributed the commonwealth’s low ranking to support caps during the Great Recession. She called for an end to such funding constraints, which caused a “$331 million reduction in state education last year,” according to Edwards.

Becky Bowers-Lanier of the Virginia Counselors Association attempted to respond to Cherry’s question in her testimony.

“This is not just a problem with school counselors — it’s a problem across the board,” Bowers-Lanier said. “Just because we have a problem doesn’t mean we should keep the status quo, but [we should] maintain some aspirational thoughts about having the appropriate number of people to provide the services to the students.”

Some Virginia school districts are already implementing the lower ratio, like Loudoun County and Roanoke City public schools, according to Del. Atoosa Reaser, D-Loudoun, and Alan Seibert, constituent services and government relations officer for the latter.

Seibert supported the bill, but made some recommendations for it going forward.

“We will be encouraging that the committees think bigger about this category of support, not specifically in terms of one licensure area, but… looking more holistically at school counselors plus school psychologists, school social workers as an area of need,” Seibert said.

Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, piggybacked on Seibert’s comments. As Cherry had alluded to, the legislature had amended Virginia law recently for school districts that didn’t have applicants for one or more of their school counselor positions, enabling them to contract with private providers. Coyner proposed that even more flexibility might be necessary.

“There’s a whole lot of folks who have very valid training in the areas of mental health supports and behavioral supports that may not have all the training in what we consider the school side… of academics and career and college,” Coyner said. “Perhaps we need to bifurcate the academic side of the house and the mental health side of the house to get even additional flexibility on the mental health side.”

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