Unsung Heroes: Guidance Counselors, Sometimes Underappreciated in Difficult Budgetary Times, Are Feeling More Respect in Their Quest to Combat Bullying

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THE NATIONAL APPETITE FOR COMBATING BULLYING at the elementary and secondary level in many cases is outpacing the ability of school districts to hire the guidance counselors who head up such efforts, although increased awareness of and sophistication in handling bullying over the past decade are beginning to have a positive effect, counselors say.

The ratio of students per counselor nationwide fell steadily from the late 1980s to the late 2000s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (see graphic), so there are more counselors per child. But that's probably leveled off since the 2009-2010 school year, the most recent for which statistics are available, given the end of spending to shore up state and local budgets under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, says Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).

"I don't think we've yet seen the impact of budget cuts in terms of how it plays out with school counselor numbers," she says. "In another year or two when we see statistics for this past year, we will know the full picture."

Districts with higher ratios of students-per-counselor tend to be more reactive, Cook says. In the 2009-2010 school year, districts in California and Arizona struggled with more than 800 students per counselor on average, while only Vermont, New Hampshire, Wyoming and the District of Columbia fell below ASCA's recommended 250-to-1 ratio.

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In the meantime, the National Education Association is "alarmed" that counselors are seen as expendable when budget cuts strike, says Vice President Lily Eskelsen. "People say, 'Let's lay off the nonessential adults in the building,' as if we had some," she says. "They look at social workers and counselors."

During the past decade, school counselors have become much more active in educating students, faculty and staff about bullying and taking active steps to prevent it, Cook says. The primary shift toward active prevention has been about using data to analyze numbers of discipline referrals or even attendance rates to detect troubling patterns.

How counselors address bullying varies among schools and districts and it depends on the severity of the problem. "It could be an information session in a classroom setting talking about what bullying is, and what you do when you see it," Cook says. "A child might come to a counselor and say, 'I'm being bullied,' and the counselor finds out more information and works with parents to deal with a particular situation."

Dealing with such questions fits well with counselors' roles, Cook adds, because they are expected to handle academic and career-related issues as well as social and emotional development.

THE VALUE OF COUNSELORS

Psychologists and social workers are valuable assets in combating bullying, but guidance counselors tend to be the point people, Cook says. Social workers typically coordinate with parents or community agencies to access outside resources for students, while psychologists are often tasked with special education-related matters, so neither group has adequate time or energy to dedicate to bullied students. "School counselors are often that support," Cook says. "We want to make sure all kids have that accessibility."

Eskelsen says that schools are not addressing the issue, not because they don't want to, but because they don't know how. "You're still going to need that individual counselor to intervene, to be that human face and voice that a tortured child knows they can trust in," she explains.

Even when schools do address the issue, it takes time and patience, because victims are too humiliated to come forward, and bystanders and witnesses are too reluctant because they're afraid of becoming the next target, says Christopher Griffin, assistant principal at Scarsdale High School in the Scarsdale (N. …