Fairfax County could face a similar shortage, school officials said, if additional funding is not included in next year’s budget to hire more mental-health professionals.
“It’s a challenge to meet all the needs of our kids,” said Amy Parmentier, coordinator of social-work services in Fairfax schools. “Newtown has certainly tragically punctuated it. There’s more to educating children than just academics.”
This year, the ratio in Fairfax schools is one psychologist and one social worker per 2,200 general-education students. Most high schools, which average between 2,400 and 2,700 students, have only one school psychologist and one social worker.
Fairfax staffing levels are far below national standards. The National Association for School Psychologists recommends one school psychologist per 500 students. The School Social Workers Association of America recommends one social worker with a master’s degree per 400 students.
The ratio in Fairfax worsened during the recession, when the school system eliminated social worker and psychologist positions to save money while student enrollment continued to balloon.
“I would never say we have enough” mental-health professionals, said Dede Bailer, who coordinates psychology services for the Fairfax schools. “It would be wonderful if we had additional staffing. But we don’t have the same number of positions that we had 10 years ago, and since then our population has increased.”
Kim Dockery, assistant superintendent for special services, said that social workers and psychologists can be the first line of defense in schools, helping to do proactive screenings to address students’ issues before they are manifested in bigger problems. But since most clinicians have such a high workload, they are often acting more like a last resort, attending to students who are in crisis. Crucial prevention work rarely happens, clinicians said.
Clinicians said they tackle a variety of issues, including depression, anxiety, bullying, substance and alcohol abuse, family deaths and parents’ divorces. Often, the clinicians are the only people students feel they can talk to openly about very personal concerns.
Nikki Simmons, the mother of an 18-year-old former Fairfax student, credits the school system’s clinicians with helping to save her daughter’s life. “They really helped her get out of her bad times,” said Simmons. “It was hell and back.”