As dialogue, debate and legislation focuses on improving school safety, counselors in Minnesota say they want to be part of the discussion after years of lagging behind the rest of the country.
"Really, the majority of my training in graduate school was in the mental health field," said Katherine Vasil, a middle school counselor in the Anoka/Hennepin school district. "We are on the front lines working with students through stress and trauma and mental illness and family issues."
Vasil and fellow counselor, Theresa Weber-Sexton, sat down with KARE 11 News to discuss school safety on behalf of the Minnesota School Counselors Association.
KARE 11: "Do you think counselors are sometimes forgotten in this school safety conversation?"
Vasil: "Often times I do. I think there is some misconception about the work that we do."
Weber-Sexton: "The statistic is that at least 20% of school aged children are in need of mental health services and yet only one in five will actually get the support services that they need."
The American School Counselor Association advocates for a ratio of 250 students to one counselor, but that is far removed from the current reality. The national average is 482 students to one counselor. In Minnesota, there is an average ratio is 723 to 1.
Vasil: "Mine is about 640 to 1."
Weber-Sexton: "And I have 1,035 to 1."
Erdahl: "I think many people would just be startled by that."
Weber-Sexton: "Yes, but I don't think people are aware of it."
In 2016, the legislature did work to address the shortfall, approving a $12 M dollar grant program that offers matching funds to schools that hire more support staff.
"I know that because of that grant over 40 school counselors were able to be added into buildings and that doesn't count all the social workers, psychologists and police liasons," Weber-Sexton said. "That was the main reason a counseling position was able to be created in my middle school. Prior to that there wasn't a licensed school counselor."
Despite the increase, many school still share one counselor across several buildings and funding is still appears to be falling short of demand. According to the Minnesota School Counselors Association, while 77 schools received grant money, more than 100 applied. While the current grant lasts six years, the MSCA estimates it will take 20 years just to reach the current national average.
"In my ideal world I'd love to see a funding stream that was just for mental health services," Weber-Sexton said.
That's because Theresa and Katherine know, it's hard for school administrators to make the decision to hire a counselor if it means sacrificing a teacher in the classroom.
"I feel like their hands are tied, in the fact that they just don't have the resources," Weber-Sexton said. "They don't have the money."
In the wake of Parkland, both political parties and the Governor have offered proposed legislation that would provide money schools could use to add more support staff and/or extend the current grant program.
It's something Vasil has been working to discuss with state leaders, in hopes of becoming part of conversation.
"With that large of a ratio it is just very, very difficult to reach kids before things become very big," Vasil said. "And sometimes you feel more like a firefighter putting out fires all day and just waiting for the next fire before you have to go put it out again or put a kid on your back and get them out of a situation or whatever that looks like."