It is society’s shared responsibility to provide safe school environments in which our children can learn and grow. After yet another horrific school shooting, safety is certainly top of mind for all of us who work in schools across Minnesota.
Much of the conversation at the Minnesota State Capitol so far this legislative session has revolved around the physical safety of our school buildings. Our associations — representing licensed school psychologists, school social workers, school counselors and school nurses across the state — share this concern and certainly believe many schools would benefit from safer and more secure physical spaces. However, the reality is that there is much more to creating truly safe schools for all Minnesota students.
Kids today face a variety of challenges that many could not imagine. From the daily pressures of social media to preparing for college and managing difficult home situations such as homelessness, parental substance abuse or the death of a loved one, students of all ages in Minnesota deserve to have access to highly qualified professionals who can help and support them academically, socially, physically and emotionally. Often, support staff are the first point of contact for students in need of help. Without them, students who are displaying warning signs of distress or illness might go unnoticed and opportunities to prevent harm could be missed.
Early identification, prevention and intervention efforts that incorporate a multitiered system of supports and services have proved to be most effective. A multitiered system includes school-employed mental health providers such as licensed school social workers, school counselors, school psychologists and school nurses. Unfortunately, Minnesota lags far behind other states in providing students with adequate access to these professionals. We must do better.
For example, did you know that:
• The average licensed school nurse is responsible for 4.8 school buildings, and some school nurses are responsible for meeting the needs of students in up to 10 buildings?
• Minnesota law only requires one licensed school nurse in a school district if it has 1,000 or more students, meaning many smaller districts do not have a school nurse on staff?
• The average school counselor in Minnesota is responsible for 723 students, the fourth-worst ratio in the country?
• Outside the metro area, school social workers are often responsible for providing services at multiple buildings, limiting their ability to provide prevention services?
• Minnesota spends less than half the national average of its education funding (a meager 2.6 percent) on support services?
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that teachers, of course, play a paramount role in the success and safety of our children. However, it is simply unrealistic to expect or ask our hardworking teachers to also be responsible for all of the emotional, social and mental needs of every student who walks through the doors.
In 2016, Minnesota took a step in the right direction with the establishment of the Support Our Students grant program, which provided $12 million in one-time funding that school districts could apply for in order to hire new support staff. Unsurprisingly, there were far more applications than could be funded — but since then, no additional funds have been provided for the grant program.
Our associations urge state legislators to make additional investments in the Support Our Students grant program with haste. School safety is about more than just the physical space — it also includes all of the people inside the buildings who work tirelessly to create safe communities, build relationships with students and ensure they are best suited for success.
From teachers to paraprofessionals to administrators to support staff, we all work collaboratively to ensure the safety and well-being of our students. Each and every person brings their own unique expertise and training to our school communities — but when one group is missing, it is ultimately our students who pay the price.
Sally A. Baas is president of the Minnesota School Psychologists Association. Liz Kruger Hommerding is president of the Minnesota School Social Workers Association. Susan Nokleby is president of the School Nurse Organization of Minnesota. Leah Zimmerman is president of the Minnesota School Counselors Association.