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Could More Mental Health Counseling Improve School Safety?

The school shooting in Florida earlier this year caused a new round of discussions about gun safety, although Republicans in the General Assembly say they would rather talk about other ways to make schools safer.

One of those ways is to look at mental health in the classroom.

Virginia schools need more mental health counselors. That is one of the conclusions of a select committee assembled in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“School safety is more than just the shootings like at Parkland," says Delegate Mike Mullin, a Democrat from Newport News and a member of the committee. "It’s the day-to-day bullying that affects and destroys young lives and emotions. A lot of that could be caught much more early on, and our schools could only get safer because of it.”

One way to accomplish this goal is to lift a cap on support staff in Virginia schools, a recession-era restriction that was created at a time when people were concerned that teachers were being crowded out by the growing ranks of support staff.

Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox says mental health counselors should also be able to focus on counseling instead of administrative duties. “So maybe one of the areas where we need to do more with school counselors is to free them up to do what that job is. Some of them do a lot of school testing, and they do other things," Cox says.

The superintendent of New Kent County Public Schools, for example, says his mental health counselors spend almost half of their time on logistical duties, like facilitating standardized tests.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.
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