CPS' 'Half-Assed' Mental Health Policy Means Huge Caseloads, Little Counseling, Poor Conditions

As many as one in five children in the United States have a mental disorder, but for those at Chicago Public Schools it may be hard to get the help they need as the number of counselors is small comparatively, and they must spend as much as 90 percent of their time on paperwork.

According to a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the volume of children showing signs of a mental disorder in a given year was as high as 20 percent for minors between the ages of three and 17.

With 400,545 students enrolled in CPS as of the last school year, that means up to 80,109 students suffer from a mental illness each year, in a city fraught with violence that can lead to further emotional trauma. Mental disorders cover a wide range of illnesses, including depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, autism, eating disorders and bipolar disorder.

Graphic showing ratio of counselors to students in CPS
Click to enlarge: Graphic showing ratio of counselors to students in CPS

“It’s so vast,” said Melissa Richardson, mental health support specialist for Communities In Schools of Chicago, which places community partners, including mental health services, in public schools. She said it would be difficult to single out the district’s biggest mental health issues.

Richardson listed off “normal” mental health issues, like peer and family issues, self-esteem and anger management.

“I also see a lot of self-harming behaviors. We’ve had quite a few kids that were dealing with suicidal ideation or attempt,” as well as the unresolved trauma that comes with exposure to violence.

“They’re supposed to put away everything they’re dealing with,” said Kristy Brooks, a school counselor at John A. Walsh Elementary School in Pilsen. “The second they walk out the doors, it’s a war zone.”

Brooks said she’s noticed a nationwide rise in self-harming behavior. She said it usually happens in middle school, but she’s worked with students as young as the fourth grade.

“Cutting usually stems from a student that has pain, sadness…that they don’t know how to deal with,” Brooks said.

The second most common issue is suicidal ideation.

When kids don’t learn how to understand or cope with issues in their childhood, “it’s going to get worse,” Richardson said.

Most mental disorders go untreated, often because of “continued prejudice,” as well as a lack of awareness, according to a recent article by Martin Wolf for the Financial Times. “Above all, mental ill health is today overwhelmingly the most important form of sickness affecting children and adults of working age,” Wolf said, as it drains people both physically and mentally, while burdening the economy.

But for CPS students, there is another reason why they can’t get help: counselors don’t have time– and for some, the resources– to do their jobs.

Brooks started as a professional counselor for CPS eight years ago after attending a school as a child that didn’t have school counselors. She thought it would be “interesting to work with students and help them outside of the classroom, help them figure out their career goals,” she said. This fall, Brooks will begin her ninth year as a CPS counselor, now at Walsh.

Every CPS school is required to have a full-time school counselor. And they do. The number of counselors at each school depends on the number of students, with one counselor for elementary and middle schools with up to 1,199 students, 1.5 counselors for schools with 1,200 to 1,799 students and two counselors for schools with at least 1,800 students, according to CPS’ budget for the previous year.

The formula is based on recommendations from more than 50 years ago – the 1960 White House Conference on Children and Youth, which said one counselor should be in place for every 600 students. High schools receive one counselor for every 360 students, and up to 12 counselors per school.

That’s far off from what is recommended today. Consider: The American School Counselors Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students.

Brooks said she would like to know who decided that every school should have one counselor, noting that they probably envisioned them spending more time working with students.

“Is it for PR purposes? Is it so every time you have a kid commit suicide…it’s so you can say, oh there’s a school counselor? Are you kidding me? It’s a joke,” Brooks said. “These programs are half-assed.”

According to the CPS employee roster for 2014, there were 764 school counselors during the past school year. That works out to one counselor for every 524 students, out of which up to 104 might have a mental health disorder.

Walsh falls below 1,200 students, so Brooks is the only counselor at the school, making her responsible for 450 students, nearly twice the recommended ratio. Walsh also has a large special education program, and Brooks, like most CPS counselors, is also the special education director, responsible for case management and loads of legally mandated paperwork.

“That special education job takes up so much time, that the 75 percent of us…forced into this job have little if any time to do school counseling,” Brooks said. That leaves some time for responsive services, but almost none for preventive work, she said.

So what is a counselor’s job supposed to look like? According to Brooks, she should be working with students in three areas: future planning; social-emotional services, such as prevention and whole-classroom guidance lessons on subjects such as bullying and alcohol; and academics. Their job isn’t to be a one-on-one therapist.

“That would be fabulous,” said Valerie Wiley, director of The Schools Group, an organization that places counseling and clinical psychology graduate students in Chicago schools. “But it’s not practical…their role is not as a therapist.”

Wiley said a counselor’s role falls more in line with CPS reality, focusing on special education, programming and crisis intervention. For Brooks, her programming duties include testing and overseeing bussing for the special education program.

“Most counselors get into it because they want to work with the students,” Wiley said. “And then they get frustrated. The best counselors figure out a way to work with individual students a little.”

Outside of her administrative and special education duties, Brooks helps eighth graders with high school applications, teaches classroom guidance and hosts a high school fair each fall. She also responds to teacher requests to work with students, usually one or two each day, she said. One request came after a girl locked herself in the bathroom with a razor blade.

In February Brooks did a personal time study, recording what type of work she was doing in 10-minute increments for one week. Over the course of five days, she spent a total of two hours counseling students.

Brooks has higher hopes for CPS counselors. In 2012 she brought the caseload issue to the Chicago Board of Education’s attention, hoping to change counselor contracts.

“They seemed shocked,” Brooks said. “They acted like they didn’t know.”

No changes were made, but Brooks has been meeting for the past eight months with Joseph Moriarty, CPS chief labor relations officer, along with representatives from the district’s special education and counseling departments.

High schools are better off, Hickey said, as they have designated case managers as well as a lower counselor-to-student ratio. However, most high school counseling is focused on post-graduation plans rather than their mental health.

Some schools have looked to outside organizations to get students the services they need. Communities In Schools of Chicago acts as a link between schools and services, pairing organizations like The Schools Group with schools in need.

Often, students can’t rely on their families to get them the mental health support they need.

“I would like it to be a parent’s issue but because everyone is so stressed out these days it’s not happening there,” said Julia Rahn, Director of Studio for Change. Rahn also works as a psychologist, speaking with teachers at Chicago schools to help them provide social-emotional support to their students. It “falls back on the schools.”

Rahn said outside organizations are part of the answer, as counselors already have enough to do.

“There’s plenty of therapists out there, it’s just how do we get them into the schools,” Rahn said.

“They are overburdened,” said Richardson, when asked about counselors’ workloads. “A lot of times if something needs to be done they’ll be asked to do it,” like watching classes, doing lunch duty or overseeing recess.

John Casey has worked for 20 years at Cameron Elementary School, located in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood, teaching for six years and working as a counselor and case manager for the past 14 years.

Casey, responsible for 830 students, said in an e-mail that he has seen improvements in recent years, like greater parent engagement and rising test scores, as well as more students getting into selective enrollment high schools.

Cameron Elementary also partners with community organizations, including the Barr Harris Grief Center and Association House of Chicago, to get students the services they need. He said his role is to act as a bridge between students and outside services.

“The greatest challenge I face is trying to provide these resources while meeting the demands of special education case management,” Casey said in the e-mail. There are more than 130 students receiving special education services at Cameron. There is so much paperwork that “little time is left to meet with students and parents.”

The combination of high casework loads and counseling also means counselors work long hours.

“My time card in the last eight years is a joke,” Brooks said, adding that she usually works from 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. without any breaks.

Large caseloads aren’t the only problem, however.

Susan Hickey, a social worker at Skinner West Elementary and A.N. Pritzker School and a Chicago Teachers Union delegate, said a huge issue is finding confidential spaces to work with students.

According to the current Chicago teachers’ contract, clinicians must be provided a space with “appropriate privacy” for “confidential discussions and shall be as free from noise and interruption as the educational program and the school facility permits.”

Social workers usually work at more than one school but share similar duties to that of a counselor, Hickey said. Brooks said social workers are used more sparingly than counselors.

“The first school I was at, I was in the basement sharing a room with the janitor and there was a drip in the room and it was urine, from the boy’s bathroom,” Hickey said.

Counselors and social workers often use hallways and auditoriums as a meeting space. Brooks said she has her own private office at Walsh, but it’s too busy, so she usually ends up in an empty classroom, stairwell or a bench outside.

“But then if somebody walks by it’s a little awkward,” Brooks said.

Hickey also knew a social worker who worked out of the girls’ bathroom.

So far, CPS has been slow to acknowledge any issue.

Last November, the Illinois State Board of Education launched an investigation into special education caseloads for speech-language pathologists, which is limited by law to 60 students. In March, ISBE threatened to cut funding to CPS due to its large caseloads – a scenario which would seemingly only worsen the situation.

Hickey said it had been a challenge to make any headway with CPS, but after ISBE came out against CPS for the second time, they were willing to talk.

“They wouldn’t have done a damn thing until ISBE told them they were going to lose money,” Hickey said.

Contract negotiations are looming, with the current contract expiring in June 2015. Brooks said CTU wants proposals by this December.

“That’s our biggest uphill battle coming up to these next negotiations,” she said, noting that teachers cannot legally strike over the issue of clinician caseloads. “People don’t know. Teachers don’t know what school counselors should be doing and how we can help them. And parents don’t know how we’re being misused.”

Brooks hopes the union will hold town hall meetings before the negotiations so that parents and community members can better understand the issue. “I think they would be shocked to learn counselors don’t get to work with kids,” she said.

“I’ve had so many kids drop out, just stop coming to school,” Brooks said. “Maybe I could have built something that would keep them there. Every time I see a kid…that’s shot in the street, and oh he stopped going to school a while a go. And that kid belonged to a school counselor…they belonged to me.”

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