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One-third of school requests for counselors go unfunded after funding goes to SROs first

Keeping students, on school campuses across Arizona, safe is a top priority for everyone involved but, Republicans at the legislature last year made it clear that, as far as funding goes, their priorities are in adding police officers to campus, first over school counselors who provide mental health services. 

Now, some schools say they’re left in the lurch, receiving officer funding from the state but not funding for counselors. 

Maria Polletta with the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting has the story and she joined The Show with more. 

LAUREN GILGER: Thanks for coming back on the show, Maria. So I want to begin with what got us here, like how is funding prioritized for schools when it comes to safety? This had to do with the GOP-led Legislature but also with the superintendent of public instruction, Tom Horne, right.

MARIA POLLETTA: Sure. So just a a little bit here, the school safety program has actually been around for several years, and it started as a way to fund school resource officers and juvenile probation officers on campus. In 2019, under the prior state Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, it was expanded to include school counselors and school social workers. That has continued but last year because this is, you know, a grant program that operates on a three-year cycle. So lawmakers kind of have to re-up that in the budget every so often. The GOP-led Legislature gave an additional 50 million to this program. But you have to prioritize campus police or SROs first. So basically, SROs are the priority, tackle all those requests from schools first, and if anything is left over, then you can fund some of the requests for councilors. And then, oh, I'm sorry, I was just gonna say and then the incoming state Superintendent Tom Horne, as you mentioned, he kind of took that a step further because it was a legislative requirement, but he put out early on a couple of months before schools even applied this year, kind of a warning to schools saying if you don't have an armed officer on your campus right now, you need to ask for one of those first or we're not going to, to recommend that your request for a counselor or school social worker is funded.

GILGER: Right, OK. So you crunch the numbers, analyze the data here in terms of the funding request that came from schools to the school safety program and it played out very much like you might expect given these sort of requirements and guidance, right? Tell us what you write.

POLLETTA: Sure. Nearly there were requests for nearly 1,000 positions overall. There were requests for 301 school resource officer positions; 301 of those were funded. There were 857 requests for counselors, 566 of those were funded before the state ran out of money. So, there were about one third of those requests for mental health professionals that went unfunded because there was not enough money after prioritizing the SROs.

GILGER: So a lot fewer counselors ended up in schools than schools asked for, essentially.

POLLETTA: Correct.

GILGER: So what's the need at hand here? Like, what did school leaders have to say about why they wanted counselors?

POLLETTA: Sure. So as I'm sure all listeners have heard and are familiar with youth, mental health needs have just skyrocketed as we've emerged from the pandemic, obviously, you know, especially in Arizona. Unfortunately, we haven't had great numbers for unaddressed youth mental health conditions pre-pandemic and that has only gotten worse. I heard from school leaders and this is, you know, urban and rural district and charter saying we have students still dealing with grief from loss of family, with anger. We have students who were, you know, dealing with school shutdowns during the time, a key time for social development. And so they're really struggling socially now, a lot of anxiety among students. And then of course, some of the manifestations of that  with fighting with substance abuse conflicts, disruptive behavior. We're really hearing that across the board from school leaders.

GILGER: Maria, there are shortages on both of these fronts too though. Like there aren't enough, you know, SROs aren't enough officers to fill those roles in schools. There are also aren't enough counselors. How does that play into this leave?

POLLETTA: And this is the the most recent numbers available are, are from a couple of months ago, so bear that in mind. But I believe as of October, there were about 140-ish each of both types of positions that had received. The request had received state funding but schools had not been able to fill them. So the state school safety task force again, prioritizing campus police came up with a plan to help schools address the the shortages and the gaps in funding school resource officers. They've kind of worked out this plan to come up, or excuse me, to have school safety officers as they're calling them, which are part time kind of on a piecemeal basis where off duty law enforcement can pick up shifts. So it's, it fills the gaps but in a different way because for schools who wanted school resource officers was to have that sort of mainstay, you know, officer who's there day in and day out building relationships. So they don't get that. But that has helped some schools fill the gap. There has been no comparable plan put forward by the state so far to help with the shortage on the counselor and social worker side. There's been a little bit of talk of maybe we can partner with some of the state universities, but it's been very sort of a whereas on the officer side, that's a concrete plan that's already being implemented.

GILGER: Yeah. And this all points to the larger debate here about basically, you know, what actually makes a campus safer? Is there any agreement on that front like that, like it takes both or that, you know, we should do one or over, over the other in terms of the data.

POLLETTA: That's a great question. And, from a data perspective, it's difficult to say. There is disagreement over, for example, you know, how, how much a school resource officer helps or sometimes even hurts frankly. I'm sure we've all seen some of the headlines where those positions have gone wrong, where officers have used excessive force, etc. But there's a lot of, you know, kind of that good guy with a gun scenario that having a law enforcement officer, that's the person with, for example, a violent situation. Whereas proponents of you know, expanded mental health services argue that counselors and social workers and psychologists could actually help stop many of those situations before they start vs. dealing with sort of the end result of violence or whatever else. So there is ongoing debate, data you know, has on the mental health side, there has been some good data showing how those types of profession can make campuses safer. But it is a little tough to say it and the debate is ongoing.

GILGER: All right, we'll leave it there for now. Maria Polletta with the Arizona Center for investigative reporting joining us, Maria, thanks for coming on. I appreciate it.

POLLETTA: Thank you.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.