Emma Rowland

Emma Rowland, a senior at Great Hearts Veritas Academy, asked the Scottsdale Unified school board to call on the Legislature for more money for counselors and social workers.

High school students are pleading for help.

From Scottsdale to Gilbert and Mesa to Ahwatukee, students in the past three months have appeared before governing boards to plead for more social workers and counselors to protect their classmates – not only from a teen who may be a walking time bomb but also from themselves.

“Make this issue treated as the epidemic it is,” implored Gilbert High senior Evan Wood at a recent Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board meeting.

In response to those concerns, the GPS school board recently endorsed a resolution calling on the State Legislature to allocate more money for social workers and counselors.

Scottsdale Unified Superintendent John Kriekard said both former and current board members have spoken to him about needing to make sure the district has enough counselors and psychologists.

He pointed out that the counselor to student ratio for high school and middle school in SUSD is 450 to 1, which is better than the Governor’s proposed goal of 550 to 1.

“We are already (doing) better than what is in his proposal. We are maintaining – despite declining enrollment – we are maintaining our counselor ratio and actually did not surplus any counselors,” he said, adding that the district is adding three psychologists and is considering adding social workers “depending on how those psychologists go.”

Emma Rowland, a former SUSD elementary student who now attends Great Hearts Veritas Academy in Scottsdale, addressed the board as secretary for the Arizona chapter of March for Our Lives.

“I am the person that my classmates go to for mental health help because there are no counselors at my school,” Rowland told the board, telling members to consider “a mental health safety plan that is more than just sending students to counselors who are already swamped just to get referrals to outside resources.”

Tempe Union High School District and Mesa Public Schools have adopted resolutions supporting the need for giving students mental and emotional health services, but their governing boards made no specific demands on legislators and said such services are a shared responsibility among all levels of government.

Tempe Union went one step further than Mesa by recommending the creation of “student peer safety review committees at each of its seven schools to work with administrators and “examine the social/emotional and physical safety needs of students and through their efforts, be in a position to make recommendations to strengthen and prioritize our work around school safety and for the social/emotional wellness of all students.”

Whether the legislature will respond to the students’ pleas is unclear. It failed to even give a hearing to bills in the House and Senate calling for more counselors even though students converged on the State Capitol last month to explain their plight in person.

In the meantime, high school students have spoken at times in anguish over how they not only deal with their own personal issues but try to help classmates who turn to them for help.

“I’ve had around 10 or 15 students in the past four months that have come up to me and said, ‘I am either extremely depressed and I hurt myself physically’ or ‘I’m having suicidal thoughts,’” Desert Vista High School student body President H. Margret Braun told the Tempe Union school board in December.

“What should I do?” she continued. “I have no background as to how to deal with things like that.”

The students are members of the Arizona chapter of March for Our Lives – the national student-driven organization started by survivors of the Valentine’s Day 2018 high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, that took the lives of 15 high school students and two adults and wounded 17 others.

In virtually every presentation before the boards of Tempe Union, Chandler Unified, Scottsdale Unified, GPS and Mesa Public Schools, the students said they knew classmates who talked of taking their life – or feared troubled ones who might take theirs.

“School shooters are really a fear and suicide is a really big concern,” said Jordan Harb, a senior at Mountain View High School in Mesa and executive director of the statewide March for Our Lives chapter. “A threat is not necessarily outside; The threat can be sitting beside someone in class.”

At a time when the ratio of counselors to students in many schools is anywhere from 1 to 500 and up, the students’ resolution asks for enough money to support one counselor for every 250 students, one social worker for every 400 students and one psychologist for every 500 to 700 students.

At the Tempe Union meeting, Armando Montero, another Desert Vista student, presented a petition signed by 1,000 students from three Tempe Union schools in three days that asked the board to call on the governor and State Legislature to hire more counselors and social workers.

Desert Vista junior Lance Watkins said it’s the concern of select teachers, not district policy that makes any significant impact on the mental health of a fraction of the student body.

“These faces are few and far between and this reality scares me for these students who have felt neglected, ignored or shut out by the modern high school experience. I could not begin to imagine what they’re feeling every day,” he said.

The plea for more counselors comes at a time when incidents of suicide and suicide attempts are rising at an alarming rate in Arizona and throughout the country. Since July 2017, 33 East Valley teenagers have taken their lives – while another five in Scottsdale and other neighboring communities lost their lives to suicide in the same time frame.

Appearing before the GPS board, former Highland High School student Trey Sequeira said, “I don’t even know if the total number of suicides at Highland last year was two or three because they were all swept under the rug.”

Then too there is the ever-present fear of a school shooting that has been fueled by a rash of such incidents across the country in recent years.

Trey recounted how Highland last school year was put under lockdown because of a bomb threat and how students “all sat under their desks in the dark.”

Once it was determined there was no bomb, he said, many students were still upset and that “there were no resources for those who were traumatized by the whole thing.

Some students who appeared before the governing boards spoke from their own experience as they talked of how fractured home life exacerbates the pressures of social media and academics.

“I’m one of few that can actually say I’m actually not diagnosed with mental illness, but I’d be far from telling the truth if I were to say that it hasn’t affected me greatly,” Corona del Sol High junior Tara Posely told the Tempe Union board.

“Many of my friends have mental illnesses and many of my friends have attempted suicide,” she continued, recounting one friend who “came to school with a Band Aid on her head and she said that she had tripped and fell, but she later revealed that she tried to overdose and woke up with a mark on her head.”

Tara was accompanied by a classmate who “said that he probably wouldn’t be sitting across the table from you today if the safety wasn’t on on his dad’s gun.”

Appearing before the Mesa Public Schools Board in January, Cienna Collicott said she also has had classmates come to her for help dealing with their mental health issues.

“I can’t be all my friends’ counselor, including working through my own struggles through high school,” Cienna said, adding some are harming themselves physically in their deepening anxiety and depression.

“Because I wasn’t there earlier that day to tell them, ‘Hey, don’t do that,’ they’re cutting their skin deeper and deeper and deeper to get to the pain that they desire,” Cienna said.

At the January meeting of the Chandler Unified board, 2018 Basha High grad Katelyn Kennedy told of a classmate who exhibited increasingly menacing behavior throughout the whole time she was in high school, starting in freshman and sophomore year.

“A lot of what he talked about was wanting to kill teachers, wanting to run away from home,” Katelyn said. “He even talked about beheading teachers.”

She said she was told by administrators they would talk to him. “In my junior year, he took a plastic bag and put it around a student’s head in class,” she continued.

Again, administrators said they would talk to him, she said.

Then, in senior year, the same student brought a gun to school. Fortunately, he was disarmed before any tragedy occurred.

At the same meeting, Abby Chandler, a student at Perry High – where at least one student in the last 18 months has taken his life – told the board:

“The school shows a video once a year on how we shouldn’t kill ourselves. That doesn’t tell us we have people who care. What it tells us is to make sure we know how to hide it.”

The students also talked of how counselors at their schools are overwhelmed by myriad duties – many connected with academic matters and not emotional health.

Scottsdale freshman Maya Zuckerburg told the Scottsdale Unified board about a friend who needed to talk about repeated sexual harassment by a classmate:

“She was terrified to go to her parents and the only person she was comfortable talking to was a counselor. Unfortunately, that was unavailable to her for two months. We made appointments and we went into the office every day during his supposedly business hours. He didn’t meet with her – not because he didn’t want to help, but because he was too busy with administrative duties.”

Stating most counselors “are academic police” because of those duties, Jordan told the Mesa board, “School counselors are people who you can talk to about what you’re feeling. They’re people who walk you through the struggles of growing up.”

Added junior Jackson Solomon: “It is not a teacher’s job to take care of these mental health issues.”

Margret, the Desert Vista student, told the Tempe Union board “For the majority of students, they don’t know who their counselor is or they don’t feel comfortable going into their counselor’s room because they’ve never had that one-on-one contact. And I’ve never had that one-on-one contact with my counselor until my senior year because I’m applying to colleges.”

The number of counselors employed by local school districts varies, though most said they could use more but can’t afford it.

Chandler Unified employs 90 – assigning six to nine to its high schools, two to three at junior highs and one each to 20 of its 30 elementary schools. Mesa Public Schools, the largest district in the state, employs 100 counselors and assigns an average of eight per high school.

In proclaiming School Counseling Week last month, Gov. Doug Ducey acknowledged that “counselors play an invaluable role in our schools” and that more are needed in Arizona schools.

“They further the educational, personal and social growth of our students – helping them navigate academic and life experiences,” Ducey said, noting that his budget provides $12 million for 112 new counselors or social workers in Arizona schools this year and promises enough funding for another 112 next year to reduce average caseloads by 17 percent.

But Kyrene school Superintendent Jan Vesely told her school board that while she welcomed the governor’s effort, “you can see this as a drop in the bucket.”

At an annual salary of $54,571 – without benefits – for each of those 112 counselors, she said, the governor’s proposal “would realistically only fund approximately 80-some positions throughout the state of Arizona.

“Currently there are 2,042 public schools in Arizona. So theoretically this would provide one additional counselor for about five percent of the public schools in Arizona,” Vesely added.

Chandler state Rep. Jennifer Pawlik and Ahwatukee state Sen. Sean Bowie, whose districts cover portions of most of the East Valley school districts, have sponsored identical bills in the legislature requiring all public and charter schools to hire one counselor for every 500 students.

But the bills died for lack of a hearing in either chamber.

“The individual bills themselves are not advancing, mainly because of the price tag,” Bowie said. “We are, however, actively trying to get more funding for counselors in the overall budget. It’s in our budget ask. Hopeful we can get additional funds there – the governor did include some funding for counselors in his budget proposal, but we are hoping to secure more.

Arizona came up short on mental health provisions for children and teens in a broad study released this year on how states are meeting the goals set in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Called the “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child Model,” the CDC set guidelines for policies and regulations that would address a broad spectrum of physical, emotional and mental health needs of kids.

“States with the least comprehensive coverage of counseling, psychological, and social services topics include Arizona, Ohio, and South Dakota. These states also tend toward less comprehensive policies, generally,” said the study, performed by the University of Illinois at Chicago, the National Child Trends, ENT Associates and the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Such deficiencies are wearing on many East Valley students.

As Emily McDougal, the Basha senior who knew the student who brought the gun to school, told the Chandler board:

“It’s mentally draining. It makes it harder to focus in school and feel secure. I want to be able to walk into my classroom and focus on what I’m going to learn that day rather than be sidetracked by what’s mentally plaguing me.”