ACLU: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students

The ACLU put together a report using data that suggests schools have too few healthcare professionals and too many police.

ACLU: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students

Forty-seven states and Washington, D.C. don't meet the recommended student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1.

In 2007, 32 people were killed in the Virginia Tech school shooting, the highest number of deaths from a school shooting the country has seen since the 1920s. Five years later, Sandy Hook Elementary School lost 27 students and staff. In 2018, 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

U.S. schools have certainly woken up over the last decade, doing what they believe will help improve student safety: pushing for gun control, adding security upgrades, hiring more school resource officers and some have even armed teachers — just to name a few.

Many K-12 campuses have added more surveillance cameras, installed metal detectors and improved visitor management. Others are looking into AI technology.

While these initiatives may improve security, federal data suggests the real crisis facing schools isn’t violence, but the lack of supportive staff to handle the mental health needs of students.

In June, public safety officers and architects testified before a Texas school safety panel and pushed for Senators to focus on student mental health to prevent school shootings.

San Antonio ISD Police Chief Joe Curiel said the lack of mental health services in schools and communities is the “most severely broken part of our system.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed a new report Monday, titled “Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff is Harming Students,” that supports previous reports on the shortage of mental health services for children in school.

The ACLU used data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), which required every public school to report the number of employed social workers, nurses and psychologists. The ACLU also analyzed school arrests and law enforcement referrals by state, race and disability status to examine the impact on school policing.

It Starts with Mental Health

According to the CDC, suicide rates among children ages 10 to 17 increased by 70 percent between 2006 and 2016. Young people are dealing with issues that may not have been a problem before, like easy access to drugs and alcohol or social media.

Approximately 72 percent of children in the U.S. will have experienced at least one major stressful event before the age of 18, whether it be witnessing violence, experiencing abuse or the loss of a loved one.

While at school, it is typically school counselors, nurses, social workers and psychologists who first notice a suffering child. Without those people in a school, however, teachers frequently double as a counselor or social worker and are not equipped with the necessary tools to help certain students.

Hiring enough mental health professionals at a school is not only beneficial for student health but school safety as well.

Student Counselors

The American School Counselor Association recommends at least one counselor for every 250 students. The national average is 444 students per counselor.

The U.S. Department of Education revealed that in the 2015-2016 academic year, 47 states and Washington, D.C. were not meeting the recommended student-to-counselor ratio. Also, 21 percent of high schools nationwide did not have any access to a school counselor.

School Social Workers

The School Social Work Association of America recommends social work services should also be provided at a ratio of 250 students to one social worker. Shockingly, the national average is 2,106 students to one social worker, and zero states in the country are meeting the standard.

School Psychologists

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends a ratio of 500-700 students per school psychologist. The national average ratio is 1,526 students to one psychologist. More than 19 million students are enrolled in a school that does not have a psychologist.

A survey from the NASP revealed that in 24 states, the ratio was 1,408 students for one psychologist. This suggests that 63,000 additional school psychologists would be needed to meet students’ psychological needs.

School Nurses

The American Nurses Association recommends a ratio of one school nurse to 750 students in healthy student populations. The national average is 936 students per nurse. More than 33 percent of schools reported that there were no nurses on staff, impacting 14.5 million students.

According to this study, students are 21 times more likely to visit school-based health centers for mental health. Even so, researchers have seen an increasing number of children showing up in U.S. emergency rooms due to a mental health crisis.

The bottom line: children in our country need more mental health resources.

Check out the slideshow to see all mental health maps from the 2015-2016 CRDC report.

Policing in Public Schools Could Cause Harm

By contrast, there is no evidence that increased police presence in schools improves school safety, according to End Zero Tolerance. In some cases, it actually causes harm because it enhances student alienation and creates a more threatening climate.

The ACLU reports that millions of students are in school with law enforcement but no support staff. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 1.7 million students are in schools with police but no counselors
  • 3 million students are in schools with police but no nurses
  • 6 million students are in schools with police but no school psychologists
  • 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers
  • 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker

In the video below, Amir Whitaker of the ACLU of Southern California discusses several recent viral incidents the group believes illustrate what can happen when schools are over-policed.

According to the CRDC, there were over 230,000 referrals to law enforcement and 61,000 school arrests in the 2015-2016 school year. Research suggests referrals should not be taken lightly and can carry long-term consequences for young people.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the percentage of schools who reported security guards or assigned police officers after Columbine increased from 54 percent to 70 percent from 1999 to 2015.

Students with disabilities were arrested at a rate of 29 per 10,000 students, nearly three times higher than non-disabled students. Black students had an arrest rate of 28 per 10,000, which is three times higher than white students. Native American and Pacific Island/Native Hawaiian students both had arrests of 22 per 10,000, which was more than twice the rate of white students.

Check out the slideshow to see more policing data and charts.

Recommendations from the ACLU Report

The report concludes with recommendations at the federal, state and local level on how to support student success, safety and civil rights. The recommendations include:


  1. Invest significantly in student supports
  2. Provide equal protection for students
  3. Improve data collection
  4. Do not provide federal funds for weapons in schools
  5. Federal funds should not be provided for law enforcement in schools
  6. Ensure legislation does not unnecessarily criminalize students


  1. Prioritize funding of student support services over law enforcement
  2. Advocate for school mental services within state policy
  3. Invest in evidence-based and culturally responsive social-emotional learning programs
  4. Ensure accurate data
  5. Support investigations
  6. Ensure accurate state-level reporting


  1. Use local resources to prioritize school-based mental health providers
  2. End routine policing practices inside schools
  3. Require equity assessments
  4. Reinvest resources
  5. End the practice of arrests and referrals to law enforcement for common adolescent behaviors
  6. Limit the adoption of highly-visible, tough security measures
  7. Ensure accurate data
  8. Ensure school-based mental providers are able to focus on their duties
  9. Provide trauma-informed services and training
  10. End punitive and net widening juvenile probation and diversionary programs
  11. Pass local transparency bills
  12. Enact policies to end police presence in schools and create specific protocols for police
  13. Mandate training for police

For the full ACLU report, click here.

*This article has been edited. The correct data is 1,408 students for one psychologist

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About the Author


Katie Malafronte is Campus Safety's Web Editor. She graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 2017 with a Bachelor's Degree in Communication Studies and a minor in Writing & Rhetoric. Katie has been CS's Web Editor since 2018.

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3 responses to “ACLU: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students”

  1. shapes says:

    every teacher can be considered a counselor.
    saying not enough counselors is an excuse to higher people.
    teachers and admin are scared to put their foot down and looking for a scapegoat.

    universities are over producing psychology degrees
    public school, courts, and other public institutions will be pushing hard to employee these people that are otherwise worthless among society as to make this set of graduates feel successful and force worth.
    they will be put in place to shape peoples “beliefs” about reasonable debatable things.
    they will be presented as experts because of their title, and swaying from their opinion will cast negativity upon the defector and recommend more counseling.

    as such it can be considered the teaching of religion since it pushes beliefs to be truths when they are clearly opinions. Forcing mental health in many areas of our lives through bureaucracies is very dangerous. it will not feel dangerous and may even feel good, as the admins of the bureaucracies will always feel they are doing a positive thing. but it becomes un-positive when you realize that beliefs are being designed and enforced through public institutions.

    This is because the public institutions loses respect for differing opinion. This can result in a public institution greatly offending someone because of their belief structure differs. The individuals are forced to keep dealing with the public entity while being forced to accept a belief that is counter to their beliefs. this will grow resentment in the individual and negativity aimed back towards the public entity. Generating negativity aimed towards a public institution puts the public in danger. that is why physiologist need to stay in the private domain and not place in public supported positions.

    trying to follow every norm defined by psychologist is similar to being in a cult. when you break one your castrated by the others in the group

    remember the core study of psychology is hypnosis. It is a basis in every psychology program.

  2. Concerned Friend says:

    Hi, Shapes. I too am apprehensive towards psychology degrees and am skeptical of treating any conclusions drawn from the discipline as fact. HOWEVER, I have to say you’ve gone a little too far here.

    While you make a good point that teachers and school admin should be providing counseling and mental health care to students, it is not a complete solution. Effective counselors in schools could go a long way to improving students’ mental health–at the least, it would be evidence that schools are in fact trying. Since there will always be resistance to limiting gun access, depressed, suicidal, pissed off kids will continue shooting up schools. The best thing we can do is try to reach them beforehand and while counselors are far from a complete solution, it’s something. Mental health counseling is not meant to be pushing beliefs on anyone, simply helping people that need help–which subsequently helps people that they might have hurt.

    That said, I *did* take Psych 101 in college, so I *may* have been hypnotized since it is the core study of the subject. Mental health in schools could be a step in the right direction. What we really need to focus on is returning to the proper definition of the family unit.

  3. […] which leads to wastes of resources on ineffective solutions instead of genuine ones. Instead of increasing funding for mental health and counseling programs at education institutions, or making teenagers, especially women, aware of the prominence of teen dating violence, many state […]

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