Black students have had less access to mental health staff in New Jersey public schools over the past twelve years, while their white and Asian peers have had greater access, according to a study released Wednesday.
The report, by the nonprofit New Jersey Policy Perspective panel, shows inequalities in staffing even before the full force of the pandemic hit schools.
“Over the past decade and a half, we have seen sharp decreases in access to mental health support staff for students of color, but now students of color need that staff more than they ever have.” said the report’s author, Mark Weber, a special analyst for education policy at the think tank. “We have a crisis of our own making here in New Jersey and we need very consequential measures to resolve it.”
About 56 percent of the state’s 1.3 million public school students are children of color.
The study, which covers school years 2008-9 to 2020-21, calculated nurses, counselors, behavioral specialists, psychologists and social workers for every 1,000 children in the state’s more than 600 districts. It found that white students went from 7.4 to 8.5 mental health personnel per thousand students, while black students went from 10.3 to 8.5 mental health personnel per thousand students.
Coverage per pupil varied by job title, with school counselors per student increasing from 2.7 per thousand white students in 2008 to 3.2 in 2020. In 2008, there were four guidance counselors per thousand students blacks, the number recommended by the American School Counselor Association, but dropped to 2.6 in 2020.
These discrepancies emerged in the midst of what US surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy called a crisis in students’ mental health, as students suffered greatly during forced isolation and other losses caused by the pandemic.
“The COVID pandemic has been devastating for everyone, but we know communities of color have suffered disproportionately,” said Sean M. Spiller, president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s teachers union, which helped support the New Jersey Policy Perspective. “As we continue the slow work to emerge from the pandemic, we must ensure that the students who have lost the most have access to all the resources they need to recover and thrive. Mental health resources are a necessity for that recovery and long-term success. “
The report warns that while it may appear that races have achieved parity in services, black and Latino students have significantly higher poverty rates and attend schools with higher discipline rates, contributing to higher demands for mental health services. They are also more likely to attend underfunded schools, which makes adequate staffing more difficult.
“School was more likely to be remote in those communities, and students were certainly more likely to feel disconnected from their school,” Weber said.
In other findings, he said Asian students have significantly less access to school nurses than other groups, although the reasons behind this are unclear, Weber said.
And although the gap is narrowing, black and Latino students still have more social workers per thousand students than white and Asian students.
Weber urged the state legislature and the state education department to look at personnel ratios through an equity lens. To address discrepancies in access to mental health personnel, she said, the state should increase school funding through the 2008 School Funding Reform Act, which aims to direct extra funding for at-risk students. She also said it’s time to look at the state school funding formula, especially as nearly three-quarters of schools reported that more students are seeking mental health support.
“Do we need more counselors, nurses and social workers?” He said. “Given the enormous difficulties of the pandemic, we should ask ourselves this question, not just assuming that the needs of children are the same as before.”
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Tina Kelley can be reached at [email protected].