With the school massacre in Parkland, Florida, weighing heavily on the minds of county officials, the Prince William school board is mulling hiring dozens of new mental health professionals.
As with any budget matter, the school division’s leaders are beholden to the county supervisors, and will face an uphill battle in getting any spending increase. But after a 19-year-old shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, board members feel a new resolve to somehow provide more mental health support services for students in the county.
“We’re just lucky here, just flat out lucky nobody’s decided to walk through a school here with lots of guns and ammo,” Diane Raulston of the Neabsco District said at the board’s Feb. 28 work session on the fiscal 2019 budget. “And I think our school division is behind the times. We saw that with what happened down in Florida.”
Before the Parkland massacre ever brought the issue to a head, Superintendent Steve Walts proposed that the division hire one new mental health specialist, a part-time special education psychologist and two part-time social workers. Yet board members are signaling a willingness to go far beyond those modest additions to the workforce, in order to help troubled students get treatment before they ever turn to something as horrific as a school shooting.
“People want to see us with more mental health professionals,” said Alyson Satterwhite of the Gainesville District. “Our parents see this as a must-add and are demanding this.”
Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers announced immediately after the Parkland tragedy that he would be proposing a substantial hiring surge in new school counselors and psychologists. At the board’s work session, he asked division officials for a cost estimate on his ambitious proposal, which would raise county staffing levels to meet the staff-to-student ratios recommended by professional associations for both counselors and psychologists.
The American School Counselor Association recommends that divisions employ one counselor for every 250 students, while the National Association of School Psychologists suggests one psychologist for every 500 students. For Prince William, those standards would mean the division would need roughly 360 counselors and 180 psychologists; the county currently employs 233 counselors and 50 psychologists, according to school division data.
In an interview, Justin Wilk of the Potomac District said he supports the spirit behind Sawyers’ proposal, and he fully expects the board to examine ways to hire more staffers focused on students’ mental health. However, he’s not sure if those ambitious standards will be attainable in the new year’s budget.
“I’m not sure a single state in the country has met those ratios,” Wilk said. “But this was a major topic even before Parkland, so we’re definitely working on it.”
Indeed, Wilk lamented that the board’s “hands are tied” in many respects by the Board of County Supervisors, which sends roughly 55 percent of the county’s revenues to the school division each year as part of a set revenue-sharing agreement.
Any substantial staffing expansion would either require cuts elsewhere, or some county money beyond what the revenue sharing agreement dictates. Considering that supervisors are currently eyeing pay raises for county public safety workers as part of their own budget discussions, any additional funding for the school division will likely be a tall order.
Yet, with the way the Parkland shooting has forced issues surrounding gun control and mental health into the public consciousness, some board members are determined not to simply drop the matter.
“Parents have called and wanted to know, ‘Is my child safe?’” Raulston said. “We need to be clear on how safe we really are.”