Counselors’ role likely to evolve to help stop further violence on campus, comfort victims
Tuesday, May 08, 2018
Earlier this year, a disaffected former high school student returned to his alma mater in Parkland, Florida, and randomly massacred 17 students and teachers with gunfire, injuring 17 others. In subsequent weeks, protesters filled the streets in cities and towns nationally, pressing for legislative change.
Their demands at first did not exactly gain traction in the U.S. Congress. Instead, there were multiple reform-minded responses from other government, public and nonprofit quarters — including one from the American Counseling Association.
A few weeks after the shooting, the executive committee of the association — which globally represents professional counselors with various types of practices — adopted a resolution. It supported and reinforced the role school counselors play in addressing the anxiety, stress, and trauma that 1) surviving students experience after a school shooting; and that 2) if otherwise left endemic in a school setting, can conceivably promote further vengeful violence.
The committee’s resolution underscored the incomparable role that school counselors play in helping students, together and individually, cope with a range of life's adversities.
The association, through its school counseling division, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), has called for all U.S. school systems and districts not to exceed a ratio of 250-students-to-1-counselor (most states’ ratios are significantly higher than this). The 250 student ceiling is widely held as the maximum allowable to adequately meet the mental healthcare needs of a typical high school student body.
The association took the opportunity to implore all of the ACA’s members — as well as those of other counseling organizations (the ACA counts 31) — to help craft further inventive solutions to address the emotional needs of those affected by the recent deadly shootings.
The association expressed its support for any other mechanisms for students, parents, teachers and school personnel to be supported by mental healthcare professionals — as a means not just to let a terrorized school’s surviving students readily get on with their lives, but potentially to avert any further mass violence on campus.
The committee’s resolution dovetailed with what may be a budding consensus: that, in light of events, it is only natural to consider school counselors as emotional first responders — deserving of all the additional community support that the term "first responders" may suggest. Thus, the role of school counselors will likely expand and evolve — as but a basic and doable response to a crisis that has not only liquidated, but left emotionally distressed, so many innocents.
As for the more outright and explicit changes in law and policy for which the Parkland survivors and their compatriots have agitated — lawmakers and officials will no doubt turn at some point to evidence-based groups and their research in order to help justify any changes.
In this respect, too, the ACA offers something, if more passively. In 2015, a prescient, focused and comprehensive overview of gun violence in school settings emanated from Allison A. Paolini, Ph.D., a former school counselor. She is currently a professor of counseling education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Paolini chose to contribute her paper, "School Shootings and Student Mental Health: Role of the School Counselor in Mitigating Violence," to the association’s peer-reviewed online research journal, VISTAS.
Paolini's work underscores the role of school counselors in addressing students’ mental health needs. Indeed, it departs from others like it in suggesting that school counselors’ potential role in averting school shootings is quite as important as their role in assuaging students’ distress in a shooting’s aftermath.
The paper sets forth interventions that school counselors can usefully undertake. Among them, most prominently, is leading group sessions with students. Albeit, it also makes clear that schools are not mental health treatment settings per se (for one thing, they would normally lack the wherewithal to obtain liability insurance for such treatment).
Despite such constraints, says Paolini, school counselors can still elicit "monumental changes in the lives of students struggling with mental illness...They have the privilege of educating students — especially those at risk — about the importance of school involvement; they can foster their ability to achieve their academic objectives; and they can otherwise help them identify and build upon their talents."
School counselors, she concludes, at least have the ability to educate students both individually and by facilitating groups with a focus on such topics as bullying, grief and loss, coping, anger management, conflict resolution, communication, problem-solving and self-esteem.
In this way, they can at least help students manage and regulate their emotions constructively. Students can then make choices more truly in their long-term interest — rather than self-destructive ones more the sour fruit of an ephemeral rawness, malevolence or psychosis.
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