Counselors Versus Cops

Three of the five largest school districts hire more security officers than counselors.

Chip East / Reuters

Many of America’s biggest school districts have prioritized  security officers over counselors. In Houston, that means there’s only one counselor for every 1,175 students

School-security officers outnumber counselors in four out of the 10 largest public-school districts in the country—including three of the top five, according to data obtained by The 74.

New York City, Chicago, Miami-Dade County, and Houston schools all employ more security staff than counselors. New York City, Chicago, and Miami-Dade are all among the nation’s five biggest school districts.

Not one of the top 10 districts, where counselors may be particularly beneficial for low-income students, meets the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of one counselor for every 250 students—most weren’t even close. The nearest to the standard was Hawaii with 274 students for every counselor.

In Houston, there are 1,175 students for every counselor. Meanwhile, the Texas district has one security staffer for every 785 students.

My analysis—which was published by The 74, an education-focused news publication, in partnership with The Atlantic—comes as the debate over school safety, classroom violence, and the school-to-prison pipeline continues to dominate national headlines and inform federal policy. (In my previous job at Educators for Excellence—New York, I worked with teachers to advocate for less punitive-discipline practices in New York City schools.)

“I'm not surprised, but it still concerns me really deeply,” Dennis Parker, the director of the ACLU’s racial-justice programs, said of the officer-to-counselor ratios. “It reflects an approach to school discipline and school safety that is ultimately counterproductive."

The ACLU has called attention to federal data showing that public schools disproportionately discipline students of color—especially black males—and disabled students. Students subjected to harsh discipline are more likely to end up in the criminal-justice system.

Cory Notestine, a counselor, works in Colorado Springs School District 11 and was named school counselor of the year by the American School Counselor Association for 2015-16. “I do find it alarming that we would have more resource officers in [some] schools than we would have school counselors,” he said.

Mike Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute, who has generally been skeptical of efforts to limit tough discipline, said, “We’ve got to be really careful about drawing conclusions from these data. [But] I certainly think that these data raise an important question, that they demand further investigation.”

School counselors’ roles vary depending on where they work, but often focus on helping students deal with academic, behavior, and social issues. High-school counselors play a key role in helping students get into college.

School security can range from uniformed personnel employed by the district to maintain school safety to armed police officers who can make arrests. Houston says it is the only school district in the country with its own accredited police department. Los Angeles Unified School District also has its own police force.  Other districts, like Hawaii, have no police presence in its schools, employing all its own safety personnel.

* * *

New York City and Hawaii have high numbers of both security staff and counselors, while Houston and Los Angeles have low numbers of both. New York City added 250 counselors in the last two years and is planning to add more, according to the Department of Education.

“Our goal is to provide a safe, respectful and supportive environment for students to thrive academically and socially. We are working across city agencies, including NYPD and FDNY, to ensure the safety and security of students and staff,” Toya Holness, a DOE spokesperson, said of New York’s security-to-counselors ratio.

The recent public debate in New York City has veered between safety concerns and criticism of harsh discipline, with three reports in the past two weeks of students bringing guns to school and a related battle ensuing over whether city charter schools suspend students too freely. Charter schools are public schools but their enrollment numbers, where possible, were not included in my analysis because they are independently run, including when it comes to hiring their own staff. In some instances, such as when they are in the same building, charters and traditional public schools can share security.

The national average of school counselors per students as of the 2013-14 school year was about two counselors per 1,000 students, and six of the top 10 districts—New York City, Chicago, Clark County, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough County, and Hawaii—did beat that.

A spokesperson for the Houston Independent School District, where it seems a student is more likely to encounter a cop in the hallway than a counselor, said the district is committed to making sure “every child has access to counseling services.” That could be through a school-based counselor or the district’s partnerships with Texas Children’s Hospital and the Memorial Hermann healthcare network. The district also pointed out that while the school system’s police department are Houston ISD’s “law enforcement agency, they’re also taking on the role of mentoring and supporting students.”

Spokespeople from Chicago Public Schools and Miami-Dade County Public Schools did not respond to requests for comment or could not respond in time for publication. The story will be updated as additional responses are received.

Miami-Dade employs more than six security staffers for every 1,000 students, though about 40 percent are part time. New York City employs more than five security personnel for every 1,000 students and Chicago over four.

In contrast, Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest district in the country, has less than one security staffer for each 1,000 students and one counselor for every 824 students.

Nevada’s Clark County has the most counselors per security staff at a ratio of four-to-one, while Miami-Dade has the lowest, at about 0.4 counselors for each security personnel.

There was significant variation from district to district for both sets of numbers, but it was much wider for security staff than counselors. That suggests districts have a good deal of discretion when deciding how much they want to spend attempting to maintain order, prevent crimes, or respond to in-school incidents.

David Osher, a vice president of the American Institute of Research, has studied issues that affect what’s called “school climate,” a broad term that encompasses everything from how safe a school feels to how well students relate to teachers and other staff to how high teachers set expectations for learning. He said he found it “troubling” that districts might employ more security staff than counselors. Osher emphasized that what matters isn’t necessarily the titles that different adults in schools have, but whether they played a positive role in strengthening school climate.

The records I requested did not include social workers or psychologists, who may also help students who are struggling academically or emotionally.

However, in Chicago, New York, and Houston, three districts that provided the number of social workers, even adding them in did not alter the big picture. Each still employed more security staff than school counselors and social workers combined.

* * *

There has been increased attention in recent years to the idea that schools contribute to overincarceration, particularly among students of color. Viral videos of police officers assaulting students in schools has brought anger and outrage over cops using excessive force in classrooms.

“I don’t think schools are an oasis from the racial problems that affect the rest of society,” said Parker of the ACLU.

Students of color make up the majority of all 10 of the largest school districts. Federal data shows that black students in particular are significantly more likely to receive harsh discipline, including out-of-school suspension and expulsion, particularly from white teachers. National data also reveals that schools with high proportions of students of color are significantly more likely to have security personnel.

Parker said that adding security to schools has led to some normal school infractions, like dress-code violations, being handled by law enforcement rather than school staff. That can result in a student being arrested and having to appear in court.

Many school-security officers receive minimal or inadequate training, particularly in dealing with special education students. As previously reported by The 74, the majority of states have no specific laws mandating that officers deployed to classrooms receive special training in dealing with children.

Parker argues that investing in reactive methods over proactive ones is a mistake.

“If there were more emphasis on preventing problems rather than dealing with them when they happen, schools would ultimately be safer and students performance would be better,” he said.

One study found that even after controlling for poverty levels, schools with more resource officers had higher arrest rates for the subjective offense of “disorderly conduct.” However, the same study showed that arrest rates for assault and weapons charges actually dropped with security staff present.

Many districts across the country—including New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago—are working to reduce punitive discipline in schools, including suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, fearing that those punishments contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Critics have argued that such efforts can make schools less safe and learning more challenging. But it’s not clear that there is any evidence, beyond anecdotes, to support these claims. Little, if any rigorous research, links an increase in school security to improvements in school climate. It’s difficult to know what value security staff bring to schools and what the appropriate level of staffing might be.

Some see their role as vital to protecting order in schools. In a March 2015 article in The Houston Chronicle examining how many times school police used force on students, the head of the teachers’ union said district police were “critical in protecting classroom teachers from violent attacks by students.”

“There are situations, especially in high school, where the use of force becomes necessary,” said Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “What we find with Houston ISD officers is generally they can reason with the kids. If they use force, they’ve been pushed.”

Meanwhile, research has generally found that school counselors have a positive effect on students, including increased achievement, and decreased discipline incidents, particularly for low-income students of color.

Notestine, the school counselor of the year, said, “The benefit of school counselors is that they’re at the front lines of identifying student issues, whether that be a behavioral issue, an academic issue, or even social emotional issues around mental health.”

Counselors may be particularly valuable in large urban districts—like the top 10—where the enrollment is heavily low-income, and the need may be greater. A lack of counselors may leave students struggling, without professional support, to deal with out-of-school challenges that affect learning or to navigate complex and unfamiliar college admissions processes.

Osher agreed with the ACLU’s Parker that schools should emphasize strategies to prevent discipline issues rather than those that deal with them after the fact.
“The best way of preventing violence ... is by creating an environment that is rich in supports for students,” he said. “Counselors play a really important role in that.”

This story was produced in collaboration with