A new report finds some public schools in Colorado and across the country are hiring law enforcement personnel rather than school-based mental health (SBMH) providers. The result: schools have become under-resourced and students overcriminalized, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
During the 2015-2016 school year, Colorado schools employed 843 law enforcement and security guards, 312 nurses, 394 social workers, 564 psychologists and 1,769 counselors.
Christine Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, said law enforcement has become a priority for schools in the wake of shootings at Columbine High School, in Parkland, Florida and across the country.
"There's been more of a focus on physical safety in schools rather than also the psychological safety," Harms said. "I think it probably reassures parents more to see an armed police officer at their school."
The ACLU report compared police presence to psychologists, nurses, social workers and counselors in schools by state. In Colorado, 44 percent of students reported police in their school and 37 percent reported police but no mental health professional.
Nationwide, schools with police reported 3.5 times as many arrests as schools without police. The report shows students with disabilities and students of color are likely to be arrested, referred to law enforcement or criminalized due to typical adolescent behavior.
Colorado schools have a large shortage of all SBMH providers and not enough staff are hired to meet the recommended national professional standards for students-to-provider ratio. For example, during the 2015-2016 school year there were 503 students for every one counselor. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to one counselor.
The ratios of students to social workers, psychologists and nurses were even worse.
Colorado schools tend to prioritize hiring counselors over the other three types of SBMH providers. Andrew Tucker, the director of Postsecondary Readiness at the Colorado Department of Education, said it's because the job of a counselor is more versatile.
"They are trained to provide supports to all students," he said. "Whereas school psychologists and school social workers typically work with students who ... have special needs or are on IEPs (Individualized Education Program)."