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Assessing mental health in schools; County superintendent wants $1.4 million to address growing self-harm concerns

Capital - 12/26/2018

The number of Anne Arundel County students who have threatened to harm themselves has more than doubled in the past five years, according to data from the school system.

Anne Arundel County Public Schools officials tracked 1,126 incidents of students threatening self-harm during the 2012-2013 school year. That number jumped to 2,370 last school year.

"We've talked for several years about the growing social and emotional needs of our students and the fact that we are seeing more extreme behavioral issues and at younger ages than ever before," schools Superintendent George Arlotto said.

The superintendent's recommended fiscal year 2020 budget includes a $1.4 million appropriation for seven school counselors, three psychologists and three social workers in an attempt to meet the needs of a "more diverse student population than ever before," he said.

The Board of Education's proposed fiscal year 2019 budget requested 14 school counselors, six psychologists and eight social workers. Then-county executive Steve Schuh's budget made room for 4½ of those positions.

Funding gaps have made it difficult for school officials to keep up with the district's demands, Arlotto said. This budget request represents a step in a multi-year process to hire staff and deploy enough resources to make up for denied funding requests that occurred during and after the 2008 recession.

The superintendent is seeking nearly 300 new positions in his budget, including 13 counselors, psychologists and social workers.

If funded, three of the counselors will be deployed at elementary schools, two will be staffed at middle schools and two will go to county high schools.

Every school in Anne Arundel County currently has at least one counselor, said Bob Mosier, a county schools spokesman.

Mental health quickly emerged as a school board campaign issue in the months leading up to the 2018 election. Candidates promised to make mental health a priority for the district and underscored the need to hire more professionals.

Board member Melissa Ellis was among them. She said the superintendent's recommendation is "not ambitious enough."

"We do need more, I do want to see more, and I do intend to look where we can move things around to get what we need," she said. "I absolutely believe we need to get to the level that is recommended, as far as 250 students per counselor. I know we're way, way off of that."

The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio. Many schools in the county do not meet that standard.

Maryland's average is 369 counselors for every student. Neighboring states and jurisdictions, like Washington, D.C., Virginia and Pennsylvania, hover around the same average.

Credit: By Lauren Lumpkin - -

Caption: Arlotto