School counselors are underfunded and overworked, head of state group says in wake of Uvalde shooting

Head of Texas Counseling Association discusses challenges faced by mental health officials in schools

People mourn outside of the SSGT Willie de Leon Civic Center following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. (BRANDON BELL, Getty Images)

After the tragedy at the Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School that left at least 19 children dead, the importance of mental health resources in schools is more pressing than ever.

School counselors are meant to serve as a saving grace for individuals who struggle with mental health. But in today’s world, counselors are overwhelmed juggling multiple projects, with little to no budget to hire help, and the bulk of importance is now placed on test scores rather than aiding those with mental instabilities, according to Jan Friese, executive director of the Texas Counseling Association.

These problems have not gone unnoticed by many school counselors, but they have gone unfixed by state leaders, he said in an interview with KSAT 12.

Counselors need “time to work with students, or they need administrative support,” said Friese.

“As school counselors, we have a job not only with emotional counseling but career counseling and school counseling. We try to provide all those services to our students, but we aren’t given time to do that because we are put in charge of testing, for example, then we can’t provide the services we know our students need,” said Friese.

State lawmakers attempted to add support in the last legislative session by “passing SB 179 by Sen. Lucio and Rep. Dan Huberty, giving school counselors more time to focus on what they are trained to do — counsel students — and reducing the time they spend on administrative duties, such as overseeing standardized testing,” according to Texans Care for Children, a nonprofit that lobbies for support services for kids.

But the bill was a drop in the bucket, the nonprofit said.

“There was a lot of talk about the impact of the pandemic on student mental health, yet the Legislature did little to ensure schools are prepared to respond to the effects of trauma and grief on student learning and behavior,” the group wrote in their post-legislative report last year. “Despite [some] positive steps, the Legislature largely fell short of ensuring that schools are equipped to support students’ mental health.”

And COVID didn’t help, Friese said.

“Because of the academic decline, mental health was pushed to the side, but we know that because of Covid, anxiety was increased, and so at a time when those kids needed those mental health services the most, testing became the priority instead of mental health in a lot of school districts within Texas,” says Friese.

In terms of funding, it’s different for every district in Texas.

According to Friese, “funds are given to the school districts [by the state Legislature], and they decide how the funds are allotted.”

Texas ranks 44th nationally in per-student funding average for K-12, according to the Education Data Initiative.

Counselors in Texas school districts normally don’t receive enough funds to hire supportive assistance, nor do they receive the national recommendation of one counselor for every 250 students, he said.

“I don’t know any district or school in the Texas School Counseling Center that has that ratio; we have tried to get the ratio bill into law but have been unsuccessful so far,” said Friese.

About the Author:

Emily Ramirez is a Digital Producer trainee for KSAT 12. She has written and photographed for several magazines and newspapers, including San Antonio Magazine, Austin Monthly and the San Antonio Current. A proud San Antonio native and graduate of Southwestern University in Georgetown, she is now completing her M.A. at UTSA.