School Counselors As A Tool for Justice

By Shira Small

Photo by FILL IN


A well-rounded education goes beyond adhering to an academic curriculum — students learn social skills, self-awareness, and practice emotional management as they study. School environments must feel safe and comfortable in order for students to fully thrive, making social emotional learning (SEL) practices essential in designing the American school system. In an attempt to protect students from rising exposure to violence in schools, more and more school resource officers have been hired in recent years. But their addition to school staff has not been without controversy. SROs, even when well-trained and well-intentioned, cannot remove themselves from the social associations that police carry. Police violence and systemic racism that disproportionately target black and brown folks have created racial trauma in many marginalized communities, where people/citizens fear for their lives and loved ones when in the presence of law enforcement. Increased police presence not only represents but reinforces systemic racism; police in schools arrest black students at 3x the rate of white students, relatively. It is therefore important to understand the emotional impact SROs can have on students in order to create a school environment that truly supports every student.


Multiple studies have demonstrated an association between police presence and emotional trauma for black people because of their disproportionate susceptibility to police violence. Published in the Journal of Black Psychology, a qualitative study about young black men’s personal narratives of trauma resulting from police violence found that only 10% of participants reported a positive experience or association with the police, and the surveyed men recognized the rareness of their experiences. Several participants reinforced the notion that even though police officers are designated to protect the community, they “provoked more vulnerability than safety.” Fears of physical violence, abuse of power, and racial profiling all contributed to the young black men’s near-unanimous consensus that police presence feels like a source of emotional trauma more than personal protection. The researchers assert that young black men’s exposure to police violence results in fear and anxiety that fits within the American Psychological Association’s definition of trauma. Although this study centers black male experiences, black students of all genders are hurt by police presence and it is integral to evaluate the intersectional impact of law enforcement in schools, even if most recent literature has focused more on black men. The association between police violence and black men’s mental health is both relevant in considering the emotional impact of over-policing in American schools, and in understanding the necessity for proper student: counselor ratios.


Increasing the number of counselors in schools is a valuable strategy to reduce student conflict without involving law enforcement, but tight education budgets restrict districts from employing the number of counselors the Department of Education and the ACLU recommend. Schools are advised to employ 1 school counselor per 250 students, but only 4 states are able to meet this recommendation in every district. A school’s funding depends in large part on its community, and wealthier districts are able to afford larger and more experienced staff than underfunded schools in poorer areas. A report from EdBuild discovered that “Nonwhite school districts get $23 billion less than white districts despite serving the same number of students.” A vicious cycle then emerges wherein students of color are most likely to be harmed by police presence in schools and majority-nonwhite school districts are least likely to be able to hire enough counselors to support the needs of students experiencing racial trauma. If it is essential to employ cops in schools to protect students physically, it must be equally essential to employ counselors who can support students’ social and emotional wellbeing. Only 8% of school funding is federal, while the remaining 92% is split between state and local funds. This means that nearly half of a school’s resources depend on the wealth of its community. A bill federally funding school counselor salaries could equalize access to resources and help schools in underfunded districts afford the recommended number of counselors.


While it may not be feasible to remove law enforcement from schools entirely, ensuring that students have a strong social emotional support system is a fundamental step in advancing equity and helping students and staff fight against systemic racism in and out of the classroom.