Poll: Counselors are more important for school safety than police officers

January 31, 2013
Photo by USAG Vicenza

Photo by USAG Vicenza

To improve school safety, Californians overwhelmingly believe that having guidance counselors in every school would be more effective than deploying armed police officers.

That is a principal finding of a poll of 1,200 registered voters conducted in the wake of the Newtown school massacre, which has raised concerns about school safety throughout the nation. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they would choose putting a counselor in every school over having an armed police officer there. The mid-January survey, released Thursday, was commissioned by The California Endowment, a nonprofit health foundation.

“California voters understand that counseling and mental health services can help prevent senseless tragedies on campus – and frankly the focus on prevention has been the missing ingredient from school safety efforts in recent years,” said Barbara Raymond, the Endowment’s director of schools policy.

Raymond said that the depth of support for putting more counselors in school came as a surprise because their role has not been prevalent in the national discussion about school safety. “What we saw was a common sense response to how to keep young people safe,” she said. “Counselors are a critical piece of that puzzle.”

The findings echo the results of a survey conducted last spring by EdSource on improving school discipline. In that survey of 315 school districts with enrollments of more than 4 million students, two-thirds of the school officials in charge of discipline said that the greatest need was for counselors and other support staff to address discipline problems.

However, increasing the number of school counselors would require a major investment of state dollars. California has typically had one of the lowest ratios of counselors per student compared with other states. Since the start of the budget crisis in California in 2007-08, an EdSource survey of the state’s 30 largest school districts found that the number of counselors had been reduced by 20 percent from approximately 3,000 to 2,400. Altogether, 22 out of the 30 districts had fewer counselors than they had before the onset of the Great Recession.

In the California Endowment poll, respondents were given a list of different policy options to choose from to improve safety and prevent violence in schools. They expressed the strongest support for training school staff in emergency responses and requiring every school to have a comprehensive safety plan. Other measures, such as training teachers and students in conflict resolution techniques, also received significant support.

Current law requires every school to have a safety plan. But to give it more teeth, state Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, has introduced Senate Bill 49 to give the state superintendent of public instruction the authority to hold back funding for a district or county office of education that has not “substantially complied with the requirement that each of its schools develop a comprehensive safety plan.”

The poll also found that gun owners – by a 58 percent to 36 percent margin – agreed that counselors mattered more than armed police.

That finding does not seem to indicate much popular support for the approach embodied in Assembly Bill 202, introduced this week by Assemblymember Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks. The bill would allow school districts to use general purpose funds to provide training to any school employee who is qualified to be trained and is willing to carry a concealed firearm on campus – from administrators and teachers to clerks and janitors.

The California Teachers Association (CTA) has come out strongly against that measure. “Instead of arming teachers, California needs more school counselors, more access for students to mental health services, safer facilities, and more training for educators to spot the mental health needs of students and bullying or other high-risk behaviors,” said Dean Vogel, president of the CTA and a former school counselor and teacher. “As we are becoming increasingly more preoccupied with student success and achievement gaps – focusing on how to teach, assess, and differentiate instruction – very little time is spent on the emotional development of the child.”

Vogel, however, is optimistic that attitudes are changing. “I feel we’re on the right track,” he said. “People are starting to come around to the idea that this obsession with high-stakes testing is really missing the mark. Teachers and educators in general are very open to learning more – how to identify kids in trouble emotionally and how to intervene to de-escalate conflicts.”

Among the other findings from the poll released Thursday:


Note: EdSource receives funding from The California Endowment, which has no input into EdSource Today’s editorial content. 

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