Delegate seeks to add more mental health counselors to public high schools

the Legacy Newspaper logoby Liza David

THE LEGACY NEWS – A Prince William County legislator is promoting a bill to add more mental health counselors in public high schools. 

The bill, HB 252, proposed by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, would that each student board employ one mental health counselor for every 250 high school students in the local school division.

Del. Elizabeth Guzman

In her district of Prince William County, Guzman said the average case load for a school counselor is between 450 and 500 students, but the counseling process involves more than just those students.

“When counselors help children, it’s not like they are serving one person,” Guzman said. “Many times we need to involve family members and friends as part of helping a person to become successful in life.”

Guzman said that if counselors have a smaller caseload, “they could help the parents to become a support system for the children.”

Guzman said being a mother of four children in the public school system gives her an inside perspective to the challenges public schools have faced throughout the years.

“Any time there was a school budget cut, the fields that were affected in the public education system were special education, school counselors, psychologists, [and] social workers,” Guzman said.

Guzman hopes to pass this bill with the help of her professional knowledge as a social worker. According to her campaign website, Guzman worked in the public sector for 10 years, most recently as the division chief for administrative services for the Center for Adult Services for the City of Alexandria. She also holds master’s in both public administration and social work.

On Jan. 10 Guzman’s bill was endorsed by both the Virginia Education Association and the Virginia Counselor Association. She said she also met with teachers and counselors before her campaign.

Becky Bowers-Lanier is the advocacy consultant for the VCA, and said, “our counselors are most supportive of her bill, [and] we will actively support it.”

Guzman’s bill requires high schools to meet the ratio of one counselor to every 250 students, but Bowers-Lanier said the VCA, “would love to have the ratio of one to 250 throughout K-12.”

“When these children are in high school they have to be ready to face real life,” Guzman said, “and if they don’t get the right support while they’re in school, there’s not a hopeful future for them.”

Bowers-Lanier said in 2016 the Virginia Board of Education proposed a revision of the standards of equality, “to tighten the ratio of counselors in K-12 to one to 250.” However, adding more counselors to high schools, “has a pretty high fiscal impact, and so it was not taken forward to the General Assembly last year.”

The VCA hopes to draw funds, “from the at-risk grant program to support the payment of the counselors,” Bowers-Lanier said.

Bowers-Lanier said at-risk funding is part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), so additional counselors would be paid for with federal funds. Bowers-Lanier said that ESSA applies to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, meaning they are considered high-risk and therefore in need of counselors.

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