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Chaplains could fill school counselor spots in Texas

Lawmakers hope to combat a mental health crisis amid a shortage of counselors


Chaplains could fill school counselor spots in Texas

The American School Counselor Association recommends schools employ a counselor for every 250 students. But during the 2021-2022 school year, the national average was 408 to 1.

Texas, which reported a rate of 390 students per counselor, is trying to fill some of the gap with chaplains. Lawmakers passed a bill in late May that allows school districts to use funds allocated for security at schools to support chaplains in the role of counselor.

“We have to give schools all the tools,” said state Rep. Cole Hefner, sponsor of the bill, during a House debate last month. “With all we’re experiencing, with mental health problems, other crises, this is just another tool.” If signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, the law would take effect this fall.

The legislation attempts to improve Texas schools’ response to student mental health needs. Chaplains will be able to “either come in and work alongside counselors, or replace them,” Hefner said.

State Rep. James Talarico brought up the concern that many chaplains have not received training like school counselors, who are required to have a master’s degree in counseling.

“I don’t think their qualifications all add up,” Hefner said during House debate. “But I do think they both have important qualifications that contribute to helping our kids and teachers in our schools.”

Hefner added that local school boards, not the state, would be in charge of setting requirements for chaplains. “I want to make sure that everybody knows that schools may choose to do this or not and that they can put whatever rules and regulations in place that they see fit,” Hefner said.

Some Texans worry the legislation blurs the lines of separation between church and state. Carisa Lopez, senior political director for the Texas Freedom Network, said there is no way to be certain every chaplain hired would give unbiased and adequate support to every student. “This bill violates the religious freedom of all faiths and Texans of non-faith by placing chaplains in our schools who are not required to be certified educators or omit their personal religious beliefs when working with students,” Lopez said in a statement.

But Rocky Malloy, founder and CEO of the National School Chaplain Association, argued that putting unlicensed religious chaplains in schools could prevent youth violence, teen suicide, and teacher burnout even without explicit evangelism. “Chaplains operate within an individual’s belief and convictions. They are not working to convert people to religion,” Malloy said while testifying in support of the bill. “Chaplains have no other agenda other than to be present in relationships, care for individuals, and to make sure everybody on campus is seen and heard.”

Supporters of the bill argue that it aims not to indoctrinate students, but rather to expand access to mental health support. “I know all the benefits would outweigh any of the problems,” retired prison chaplain Tim Taylor said in a Facebook comment on a tracker page for the legislation. “Students have deep losses and hurts in their lives, which could be helped by a caring chaplain.”

Tobin Jacobson

Tobin Jacobson is a student at Patrick Henry College and the World Journalism Institute.

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