Schools can replace officers with counselors

Schools can replace officers with counselors

Six West Valley school districts will have to decide whether grant money they now use to pay for security officers should be diverted to hiring counselors or social workers.

The state superintendent of public schools has advised that Tolleson Elementary, Tolleson Union High School, Alhambra Elementary, Deer Valley Unified and Dysart Unified school districts can reexamine their use of School Safety Program grants they now get for school resource officers.

Meanwhile, districts that don’t have schools on a current waiting list for grant money won’t be getting any of the $20 million the State Legislature authorized for hiring resource officers, counselors or social workers.

And while the 87 schools on that waiting list will be sharing in that new money, it’s unclear when. That list includes all of Glendale Union High School District’s schools as well as four others in Deer Valley – Deer Valley High, Mountain Ridge, Sandra Day O’Connor and Vista Peak.

The state education board on June 24 voted to hold off immediately distributing those funds before the 2019-20 school year begins.

“The State Board ruled to hold the money for the 87 schools on the wait list for the 2019-20 school year until the process for dispersing funds to either SROs and/or counselors is further discussed,” said Stefan Swiat, spokesman for the state education department.

“The schools that are already on the program – and about to go into the third year of the cycle of the program – are allowed to continue to those receive funds,” he added, explaining:

“The state board just wants more time to discuss the process of administering funds to schools who would like either an SRO and/or a school counselor or social worker in their schools.”

The board doesn’t meet again until August 26.

School officials across the state hoped the $20 million appropriation would help them address the worst counselor-student ratio in the nation.

Arizona’s student-to-counselor ratio is 905-to-1 – well above the national average of 455-to-1 and the recommended ratio of 250-to-1.

“With the amount of school shootings and the importance of mental health in schools, we think it’s time that Arizona starts to lower that ratio,” Janine Menard, a member of the Arizona School Counselors Association’s board and a counselor with the Tolleson Elementary School District, told KTAR Radio after the board vote.

Grants are awarded every three years, and by law, the next round of applications are due by April 15.

Schools that previously applied for a safety grant did so more than two years ago, at a time when the program exclusively funded school resource officers.

But most education board members indicated an unwillingness to distribute the money until all schools can apply – something that they can’t do before next April.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman cast the sole vote against holding onto the money – and possibly making it unavailable before the 2020-21 school year.

A week before the board meeting, Hoffman had issued a directive to schools that state:

“Given the limited period between when the school safety legislation and budget passed and the start of the upcoming academic year, there simply is not enough time for (the education department) to launch a new grant process for all schools following the criteria of the law. Moreover, if (the education department) were to release a new application for all schools in 2019, schools would still need to reapply in Spring 2020.”

Throughout late last year and early this year, students appeared before numerous school boards urging them to hire more counselors and social workers.

Some knew students who had taken their lives – or attempted to – and said they could have been helped if counselors were on their campuses.

They expressed frustration that the counselors that were at their schools were overwhelmed not only by their huge caseload but also by responsibilities that had nothing to do with student emotional and mental well-being.

Instead, the students said, counselors were focused on college prep programs and other responsibilities handed them by the administration.

They also argued that counselors and social workers were more effective than SROs in preventing violence in schools because they were better equipped to address the problems that can provoke a troubled student into attacking classmates.

Among the 114 schools that receive grants to pay for SROs, Tolleson Elementary has two that split their time among its four schools while Tolleson Union has a resource officer in each of its five schools.

Washington Elementary’s grant keeps a resource officer in its middle schools and junior highs as well as at Sunnyslope and Washington Elementary.

Alhambra uses its grant for a fulltime SRPO at Simpson School and one that splits time between Seville West Middle School and Sevilla Primary School.

Deer Valley’s three grant-funded SROs are assigned to Barry Goldwater High, Paseo Hills and Deer Valley Middle School while Dysart Unified has a grant for one SRO at Dysart High.