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Counselors vital after deaths of six students, but aren't they critical all the time?

A friend who is a school counselor says her work days come full of surprises. She never knows what she'll walk into day-to-day.

Today, counselors at two metro high schools walked into walls of grief.

In Fulton, Langston Hughes High School students mourned four classmates who died Monday at 1:15 p.m. when their Lincoln Navigator struck a tractor-trailer. A fifth student was hospitalized with leg injuries and bleeding in the brain.

The Lassiter High School community in Cobb grieved the deaths of two brothers a few hours later. James Pratt, 18, and Joe, 14, died Monday when their car hit a school bus carrying special-needs students. None of the special-needs students were seriously injured, authorities said.

The deadly crashes have led to the usual discussions around young drivers. But the fatal wrecks also point out the pivotal role of school counselors when tragedy strikes a school community.

In a story today on how counselors help students cope with the sudden and violent deaths of classmates, AJC reporter Ty Tagami writes:

Counselors are in short supply. A 2015 study committee by the Georgia House of Representatives reported one for every 500 student, half as many as are recommended by the American School Counselor Association.

Georgia recommends 450 students per counselor but some schools have far more. Maria Grovner had 750 on her roster when she was a counselor in a metro Atlanta middle school.

To help the overwhelmed school staff in a crisis, districts typically assemble crisis response teams by pulling in staff from other schools and even tapping community organizations for help. Even then, said Grovner, now at the Georgia Department of Education and in charge of training and support for school counselors and social workers, “there are more students than a crisis team can see.”

Fulton brought in 25 counselors, social workers and psychologists from across the district Tuesday to augment the team of six regularly stationed at Langston Hughes High, which has about 1,900 students.

My exposure to school counselors while in high school was confined to class scheduling and college applications. That's been the same for my four children, but I know students who bonded with their counselor and visited the counseling offices weekly for affirmation and consultation.

I sometimes get emails from parents who maintain school counselors failed to recognize their child's escalating mental health issues. In schools with 1,000 teens, I'm unsure whether we can expect two counselors to identify every struggling student.

Some parents assume counselors can "treat" their children. While counselors can talk to kids about their challenges, they can't serve as ongoing therapists even though many students could benefit from therapy. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates 20 percent of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition but less than half receive needed services.

Everyone grasps the importance of school counselors in the aftermath of student deaths. I'm not as sure the public is generally aware of the everyday need for more counselors in our schools.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.