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More Mental Health Workers Sought For Increased Demand In Schools

Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE
Cochrane Collegiate Academy social worker Candace Brown (left) talks to a student during the lunch break.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members are considering a budget for next year that includes $4.4 million to hire 60 additional school counselors, social workers and psychologists. This comes after the fatal school shootings in Parkland, Florida.

If the funding is approved, CMS will still be a long way from meeting the required number of health professionals the Centers for Disease Control recommends for schools. School health care professionals are in high demand and they face a myriad of challenges in trying to meet the ever increasing needs of students.  

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn/ WFAE
Cochrane Collegiate Academy social worker Candace Brown, left, and part-time school psychologist Donna Smith-Hogan collaborate on students they both work with on a variety of issues.

At Cochrane Collegiate Academy, a Title I school of over 1,000 sixth through 12th-grade students just off The Plaza in northeast Charlotte, social worker Candace Brown has her hands full.

Brown used her lunch time to check on students. She was stopped repeatedly by students as she walked through the cafeteria. Brown was hugged by one student, sat and talked to a pregnant teen about free medical care and talked with another to make sure she was taking all of her medications. She also talked to a young man about his attendance issues. He admitted that he was out the day before and promised to come to her office soon.

Brown said she sees 200 to 300 students a week in her office. She said she not only tries to help the students, but their entire families too.

“A lot of the major role of our duty is putting out fires. Evictions, family death, if mom lost her job. We have students going through emotional issues,” Brown said. “So when we have a baby upfront crying, something is going on at home and it’s trickled down into school. [The student says] 'I had a thought, a feeling,' and we find some type of way to handle those.”

Brown said her biggest challenge is absenteeism. Some of the students move a lot, making it hard for Brown to track them. Her office is filled with food packets, coats and hygiene products for students who need them. On this day, Brown found rubber bands to fix a homeless student’s hair who was bullied because of her appearance.

“A lot of our kids have instability within the homes,” Brown said. “I believe one social worker to 250 students is recommended, and I have one to 1,000 at this school.”

That ratio will improve if CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox gets his way.

“We’re looking at trying to add almost 60 positions including about 10 psychologists, 20 social workers and 30 guidance counselors,” Wilcox said. “The ratio for social workers today is one to 250 [students]. Yet, our ratio right now is one to 2,119.”

The CDC calls for one school psychologist for every 750 students. 43 percent of CMS schools have enrollments larger than that, and most psychologists serve two or more schools. Cochrane’s psychologist Donna Smith-Hogan serves two middle schools and two high schools. She comes to Cochrane twice a week.

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn/ WFAE
School psychologist Donna Smith-Hogan divides her time between four Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools

“A lot of the stuff I see are anxiety issues, depression issues, thoughts of self-harm, even suicidal ideations,” Smith-Hogan said. “It’s complicated by factors such as poverty and student exposure to stress and trauma. Our students have histories that include physical and sexual abuse, neglect, exposure to violence and substance abuse within the homes.”

All of which affects their ability to succeed academically. Smith-Hogan said about 25 percent of Cochrane students need psychiatric care. Cochrane does have a school therapist, a part-time counselor and some students are referred to outside agencies. Those resources help Smith-Hogan, who said she can only spend about 20 percent of her time treating students because school psychologists spend a lot of time on special education eligibility testing.

Melissa Reeves is a psychology professor at Winthrop University and the past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. 

“I’ve encountered school administrators who only see school psychologists as testers,” Reeves said. “Our frustration is we have a lot of skills needed to be proactive but because we’re stretched so thin, we’re pretty much being utilized mostly for assessments for special education eligibility."

She said school psychologists don't have any time left over to give direct services to students or consult with teachers about the mental health and behavioral challenges they see in the classroom.

Reeves said over the past five years, she’s seen more depression and anxiety in students. She said she blames increased academic demands, family problems and social media bullying. Reeves said the youth risk behavior surveys in North and South Carolina show that teens are committing more suicide attempts.

"2017 data shows that 16 percent of North Carolina students and 17 percent of South Carolina students have actually made a plan to attempt suicide," Reeves said. 

The state’s most recent health report card found that one in 10 North Carolina high school students attempted suicide.

Gov. Roy Cooper is asking the General Assembly to provide $40 million to pay for 500 additional school nurses, psychologists, social workers and counselors. Mecklenburg state Rep. Craig Horn, who co-chairs the education committee, said school safety and student health care are at the top of the state legislatures' priority list.

“I’ve never seen this much interest in providing mental health and counseling services to kids,” Horn said. “The challenge is where is the money coming from?”

Many health and education experts said CMS is moving in the right direction by requesting more funds for health professionals. But they said it’s far from what’s needed at low-income and high-income schools. Melissa Reeves said if schools had more psychologists, students could receive needed preventative care and incidents like the fatal school shootings in Parkland, Fla., could possibly be avoided.

“Many times, unfortunately, our skill set is not brought in until a student is struggling already,” Reeves said. “If we could have more of us and not be spread so thin among so many different schools, there is so much we could do proactively to prevent students from needing more intensive support.”

A lot of attention is focused locally, nationally and statewide on additional funding to make school buildings more secure. But Reeves said it doesn’t matter how many police are hired or how many cameras, metal detectors and door locks are installed. If students’ mental health needs are not met, schools will not be safe.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.