Northam proposes $36 million to add more counselors to schools

Gov. Ralph Northam outlined a package of proposed funding increases for schools that includes an additional 2 percent raise for teachers. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Dec. 11, 2018)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced that his proposed budget will include $36 million to increase the number of counselors at schools across the state in an effort to ramp up school safety and provide more support to students facing mental health challenges.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among school-aged children both nationally and in the state. In 2017 there were over 9,000 reported threat assessments in Virginia schools, half of which were threats of self-harm.

“Virginia’s school counselors play a critical role in creating a positive school climate and engaging with our students — they are an important source of support in the education system and we need more of them. We can create safer learning environments for Virginia’s students by taking a more holistic approach, and adding school counselors is integral to our success,” Northam said in a statement.

The $36 million would be the first part of a three-year effort to hire more school counselors and reduce their caseloads to 1 per 250 students across all grades. The current ratio in Virginia is 1 per 425 students.

“Our educators need help to meet the mental health needs of our students,” the Virginia Education Association said in a statement. “We’ve been operating without enough counselors, social workers and school psychologists for years and some of our students have been slipping through the system’s cracks. Once again, the governor has shown that he’s listening to the pressing concerns of our educators.”

Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said in a statement that he is “encouraged” that Northam’s proposals mirror those recommended by the House Select Committee on School Safety.

“Our first priority should be making sure our current counselors are spending the majority of their time actually counseling, rather than on administrative tasks,” Cox said.

Northam also proposed $3.3 million for the Virginia Center for School Campus Safety, which would fund initiatives such as expanded training for school personnel, additional active shooter training and allow for better tracking and reporting of threat assessment data.

“When it comes to the safety and well-being of our children, we can never be too vigilant,” said Atif Qarni, secretary of education. “Providing funding for critical personnel, mental health supports and highly relevant trauma-informed trainings is essential.”

The announcement was the latest in a series of budget rollout events the governor has held in advance of a presentation to members of the General Assembly next week. Others have focused on water quality and teacher pay.