The high school students behind March For Our Lives Arizona want to see more counselors and fewer police officers in their schools.
Arizona schools appear to be taking notice, but students say officials still are not doing enough.
Requests for school counselors and social workers made up nearly 75% of requests by school districts and charter schools that seek a portion of the $20 million in state funding Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature allocated through the school safety grant program.
In previous years, the program was limited to school resource officers, but was expanded in 2019 to include social workers and guidance counselors. The requests for those positions this year far outpaced requests for school resource officers.
Arizona has the worst counselor-to-student ratio in the country.
Induja Kumar is a senior at BASIS Chandler High School and the co-communications director for March for Our Lives Arizona.
March For Our Lives started in the wake of the 2018 Parkland, Florida, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Students who survived the attack organized a rally in Washington, D.C., a month later to support gun control legislation, and the group has spread nationwide since.
“We really prefer that money goes to preventative measures rather than reactive measures,” Kumar said. “If we can stop gun violence before it happens then that’s a much more constructive way of operating than being reactive.”
Some districts say they need officers
A number of school districts are asking for officers above other positions, though.
At the Tempe Union High School District, school resource officers are the first priority, said Jennifer Liewer, a district spokeswoman.
“Having an armed officer on campus is a deterrent for danger and harm,” she said.
While Liewer said all student resources are valuable and a critical component to students’ learning environment, the contracts for school resource officers at the district are ending this year. The district hopes to use state funds to continue the program.
Kumar said Liewer and others are misdiagnosing the best way to serve students and provide a safe school environment. School resource officers, Kumar argued, are a reactive response to gun violence and do not address mental health in schools.
“We should start taking preventative measures like having mental health counselors or social workers,” Kumar said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly two-thirds of gun deaths are from suicide. And one of the leading risk factors for a suicide attempt is mental illness, particularly clinical depression.
“Counselors and social workers are better equipped to be working with every day gun violence because they’ll be preventing the deterioration of mental health that leads to suicides in the first place,” Kumar said.
More officers may mean more arrests
The Tolleson Union High School District is requesting money from the School Safety Program to fund school resource officers, but officials are also asking for money for counselors and social workers as a second choice.
“All of these position are critical for our students. We have been successful with our SROs, and we want to continue to support our schools and students in that way,” Joseph Ortiz, a district spokesman, said in an email.
School resource officers serve as a intermediary between the school and families in the community, teach classes on critical thinking and decision making, and provide security to students in school, he said.
“In that way, SROs may be providing a service,” Kumar said, “but we shouldn’t be increasing the number of armed officers in a school when it’s not necessary. When we start equipping schools with school resource officers, they might be disproportionately targeting minority students in communities of color.”
Some studies show that having an SRO in school leads to more arrests for disorderly conduct, which some in the civil rights community have called the school-to-prison pipeline.
A study from the advocacy group Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice found that disabled, young black men were more than three times likelier to be arrested compared to the overall population of Alabama.
A 2009 study published by the Journal of Criminal Justice said, “Schools with an SRO had nearly five times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without an SRO.”
Lowering the counselor-to-student ratio
March For Our Lives Arizona has launched what they are calling the New Normal Campaign to advocate for one counselor for every 250 students at Arizona schools. They plan to lobby at the state Capitol as part of that effort.
“The most recent numbers that we have show that there’s 905 students to every one counselor in high schools across Arizona, which we think is completely unacceptable,” Kumar said.
March For Our Lives is grateful to the governor for allocating money to student resources, Kumar said, but more needs to be done.
“Obviously, this is a huge victory in Arizona in the first place, like we didn’t even think this was going to happen, and we’re glad that we’re at least taking that first step,” Kumar said.
While the governor allocated $20 million, schools requested nearly $100 million total for counselors, social workers and officers.
“We think that investing in our students mental health is really valuable because it invests into their long-term sustainable ability to be successful and allows schools to identify at-risk students that might be a harm to themselves or other people,” Kumar said.
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