Letter from ACLU on Saugus Union School District’s decision to lay off school counselors

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In a letter to Saugus Union School District (SUSD) officials, representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a nonprofit organization, objected to the board’s decision to approve counselor layoffs schools in the district.

See related: SUSD votes to lay off advisers amid change

Ed. Note: The following letter was provided to KHTS by the ACLU.

April 18, 2022

Dear Saugus Union School District Governing Board Representatives,

We provide public comments regarding the layoff notices approved for all school counselors in the Saugus Union School District (the “District”). This is a deeply troubling decision that will deprive Saugus students of essential supports. Not only does this decision conflict with best practices, state law, and decades of research, but it also comes during the critical recovery period of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students need mental health and social-emotional support more than ever to deal with the trauma they have experienced over the past two years.

The school district says lack of state funding is one of the reasons it issued layoff notices to all Saugus school trustees in March 2022. However, this is inconsistent with the reality that the The state has provided historic increases in education funding in the past. two years. When he proposed more than $100 billion for education for the first time in California history in his 2022-23 state budget, Governor Newsom has explicitly stated “I don’t need to tell you about the stress and anxiety our children have been through over the past few years, particularly in relation to Covid. This is serious and we take it seriously. Policymakers at the highest levels of our state, from the governor to the legislature, have unanimously pledged to ensure students have the support they need to recover from the pandemic. Additionally, California school districts have received millions of dollars in additional federal funding to help students recover from the pandemic, including investing in more mental health supports. The administration of the Saugus Union School District is doing its students a disservice by going in the opposite direction.

The district said it will still provide other mental health supports to students despite eliminating school counselors who have spent years building relationships. Public comments from a school trustee at the March 2022 school board meeting highlight some of the downsides of the district’s decision.

“I have been a pillar of support for students anxious or fearful about going to school, or students struggling with their parents’ divorce or grieving students, or students in a state of despair or the students trying to navigate a new normal. The right leadership is certainly not one that takes away that level of support from all of our students, especially in times of change and uncertainty.

– Bridgette Martinez, school counselor at SUSD

As another district school counselor stated at the March 2022 meeting,

“I am convinced that the needs of children are going to be dangerously compromised by making such movements. The student population will be the ones who will suffer. It is truly unfathomable, unthinkable and, quite frankly, irresponsible (that this) conclusion has been reached.”

-Jody Bolde, SUSD school counselor

Despite these concerns from experts who serve students and families, the district is moving forward with a decision that will remove critical student support and undermine its own goals. For example, Superintendent Hawkins and district officials said it was their priority to address attendance issues and re-engage students. Long-standing research has established that school counselors have a positive impact on these domains as well as others described in the Best Practices: Guidelines for California School Counselors document prepared by the California Association of School Counselors. As the document states, “school counselors understand that the best way to deal with chronic absenteeism is to ensure that schools are a place where students feel happy and safe, both physically and emotionally”.

Additionally, state law does not allow for the elimination and replacement of certified school counselors with other mental health professionals who do not have certification for student personnel services (“PPS “). California law requires that contracted mental health service providers be supervised by an individual with a PPS credential when providing school mental health services (California Code of Regulations, Title 5 [5 CCR]item 80049.1, subdivision [c]). Additionally, mental health personnel not accredited by the PPS do not necessarily understand the public school system and the various ethical and legal requirements governing student confidentiality. These issues have been widely discussed by the California Department of Education in the guidelines that have been sent to school districts.

What is most troubling about the district’s decision is that it comes at a time when students need unprecedented social-emotional and mental health support. A National state of emergency in children’s mental health was declared in October 2021 by the American Academy of Pediatrics. the American surgeon general also recently issued a warning about the crisis exacerbated by the difficulties of the pandemic. The Cal State University Center to Close the Opportunity Gap and ACLU California Action recently released the first “State of Student Well-Being” report capturing two years of data from students in 23 counties and 46 school districts in California. Results from student surveys administered in 2020 and 2021 show that student mental health needs are at a critical level, requiring immediate attention. About a fifth of students (22%) felt they might be traumatized because of the pandemic, more than 63% of students said they had experienced an emotional crisis, and 45% of students said they felt depressed. More than half of students reported needing mental health services over the two survey years.

Starting May 9, school districts across the state will celebrate third grade California Student Mental Health Week. At the same time, the Saugus Union School District will consider eliminating all school counselors and depriving students of mental health supports. As representatives of the California Teachers Association have stated, “It doesn’t make sense for districts to lay off employees in the midst of a severe employee shortage. Layoff notices create unnecessary fear among educators and should not happen. Therefore, we urge you to reconsider your decision to terminate counselors for the sake of your students and to comply with best practices and the law. We also urge you to end the retaliatory and intimidating tactics employed in the district that limit the voice of educators and contribute to a hostile work environment. Some staff have expressed concern over what appears to be the dismantling of the school counseling program and the sabotage of the duties and responsibilities of school counselors (i.e. – limiting the use of references, assigning them in as paraprofessionals, limiting counselors’ abilities to see more students).

Finally, here are some additional resources to help the district better understand the role of school counsellors.

  • This School mental health guide was published by the California Association of School Social Workers, the California Association of School Psychologists, and the California Association of School Counselors in 2020.
  • The Commission on California Teaching Credential provides details on Student Personnel Services Credential for Prepared Individuals in California (CL-606C). This defines some of the duties and responsibilities of school counsellors.
  • California Education Code (CEC) 49600 defines “educational counseling” under California law. This included a range of tasks related to student socio-emotional health, stigma, restorative justice, PBIS, bullying, chronic absences, and other areas. There is currently legislation (AB 2508) to provide new updates to the law regarding mental health and other areas.
  • In the job description document for “elementary counselors” used by the Saugus Union School District, eight of ten “core duties” focus on non-academic responsibilities that are critical to student success. Some examples of these include individual and group counselling, holding parent groups, and assisting teachers with students with learning or behavioral issues.

Thanks,

Dr. Loretta Whitson, Executive Director

California Association of School Counselors

Josh Godinez, Chairman of the Board

California Association of School Counselors

Victor Leung, Education Equity Project Director and Deputy Director of Litigation

ACLU of Southern California

Dr. Amir Whitaker, Senior Policy Advisor

ACLU of Southern California

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