Where are the school psychologists in Texas?

After the tragic murder of 19 students and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde by an 18-year-old former student, there has been a debate on mental health services for children and adolescents.

In Uvalde, some wondered if the shooter had received any mental health assistance, while most people worry about the future mental health of students at Robb Elementary and all children in the Uvalde Independent School District.

Since the shooting on May 24, there has been national criticism of the lack of mental health support for children in Uvalde and in Texas. It didn’t take a school shooting for many parents in our state to recognize the limited school-based mental health help their children receive.

School psychologists are nationally recognized as mental health experts for school-age children. Their education, according to the National Association of School Psychologists, focuses on 10 domains of practice, two of which are mental and behavioral health services, and services to promote safe and supportive schools.

Unfortunately, most, but not all, Texas school districts severely limit the role of the school psychologist, employing them almost exclusively as testers for special education. School psychologists are well-trained to evaluate students for special education placement, but this is just one of their many roles.

I have worked as a school psychologist and directed Baylor University’s school psychology graduate program for over 20 years. While most of our graduates remain in Texas, several work in other states and these graduates are often surprised at the expanded role of school psychologists in other places — roles for which they are all well prepared. In fact, these are not “expanded” roles at all — it is simply that other states use their school psychologists as they are trained. This includes working directly with students, providing professional development for teachers, creating systemwide mental health prevention and intervention programs, coordinating parent training, and liaising between schools and the medical profession.

School psychologists across the country also evaluate students for special education so it’s not an “either-or” proposition. Ways in which the highly trained school psychologists are used within their districts are based primarily on how well school district leaders understand their training and value their potential contributions to student and whole district functioning.

This lack of understanding might be one of the reasons why Texas ranks 42nd out of 50 states in its school psychologist-to-student ratio, according to NASP. This means a typical school district of about 5,000 students would employ only 2 school psychologists, which is appalling.

Understanding this ratio is important because the more school psychologists employed by a district, the more involved they can be in addressing mental health. This is one of the reasons why NASP recommends a ratio of 1 in 500. Just like I feel safer in a community that has one police officer for every 500 people compared with one officer for every 2,500, I believe my two school-age children will receive better mental health services in a school district with a school psychologist for every 500 students.

I recently approached a couple of school districts in Texas with a plan to use a federal grant that had the potential to provide 30 additional school psychologists within six years and required a minimal financial commitment from the district. Individuals in leadership roles in both districts asked if I could lower the number because 30 seemed like too many for them to hire. Note that both districts have a school psychologist-to-student ratio over 1 in 3,000, and if these districts added 30 new school psychologists and retained their current staff they will still be far off from the national recommendation.

I do not blame the district leaders for this question because they are part of a larger culture that does not understand the role of a school psychologist.

I have been teaching the school psychology internship course for more than 10 years at Baylor, where our students spend a school year working full time in school districts under the supervision of a licensed or certified school psychologist. Most of our students intern in Texas, while others venture to other states.

I recently met individually via Zoom with several interns and here is an example of their experiences: One intern works in a suburban school district in Texas with more than 20,000 students and spends almost 100% of her time testing students for special education placement. The school psychologist-to-student ratio in this district is approximately 1-to-2,700 — almost identical to the Texas proportion.

Then I met with an intern working in another state. She is in a much larger suburban school district than her Texas peer but has a school psychologist-to-student ratio of about 1-to-450. Since August, this intern has used a mental health assessment with elementary school students, analyzed the results and worked with teachers to create four social-skill groups of students at risk for mental and behavioral issues. She is now implementing a formal coping skills curriculum with these young children to intervene before their behavior becomes a significant problem. She is also providing individual counseling to higher-risk students, and a whole-class curriculum on suicide prevention to all fifth graders.

Note this intern spends approximately 25% of her time evaluating students for special education and the main reason why the percentage is low is because she spends most of the other 75% engaged with students, parents and teachers to prevent mental health issues. In other words, you can work with students to prevent or intervene early, or you can wait for major problems to occur and test for special education.

Perhaps the greatest symbol of unfamiliarity with the role of school psychologists in Texas is their title: licensed specialist in school psychology, or LSSP, a mouthful that confuses many inside and outside the school system. How are parents supposed to seek help for their child if they don’t know they have a psychologist in the school? This is an unfamiliar and clunky term that poorly describes the role of school psychologists.

The Texas Association of School Psychologists has been advocating for the official title change for more than a decade, but our legislators have failed numerous times to bring the issue forward for a vote.

So where are the school psychologists in Texas? While a bit difficult to find in some school districts due to unacceptably large school psychologist-to-student ratios, some are right in front of you hiding behind a confusing title and pigeonholed into a role that limits their impact with students.

A good first step to improving the mental health of our Texas students is to change the title of these school-based mental health experts to school psychologists. A good second step is for district leaders to review the roles and skills of their school psychologists and expand their responsibilities. Our students deserve this.

Eric L. Robinson is an associate professor at Baylor University, which has a National Association of School Psychologists-accredited school psychology program in Waco and Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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