San Diego County

Many Public Schools in San Diego County Don't Meet National Mental Health Staffing Standards

Most parents NBC 7 spoke with on the playground said mental health is a top concern for their little ones

NBC Universal, Inc.

Kids are back in the classroom after an unprecedented school year full of loss and stress. Yet, when it comes to mental health resources at school, NBC 7 Investigates has learned many of the largest school districts in San Diego County fall short of industry standards.

This school year marks the first time students at South Oceanside Elementary have a counselor at school every day.

The Oceanside Unified School District added more counselors to its staff, now there is a full-time counselor on-site at all 12 of its elementary schools.

“Just knowing that there is somebody at this school that they can come to anytime that they know that they have that support,” said Lauren Beal, the counselor at South Oceanside Elementary. “I think, makes a world of difference.”

Beal says the isolation from the pandemic has stunted social development skills, skills she says form a foundation for students to succeed academically.

“If a kid is on the playground and someone cuts in front of them in line to go on the swing,” said Beal. “You know they haven’t had to deal with those kinds of situations.”

She estimates she has already worked with 50 students one-on-one since the start of this school year.

“We’ve been planning to do this for some time,” said Jordy Sparks, the Oceanside Unified Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Sparks said investing in school counselors was an easy sell, especially after the uncertainty and pressure spawned by the pandemic.

“Having a counselor at every school,” Sparks said. “And having them be full-time on your staff, really allows them to be a part of school-wide programming, and not just a band-aid whenever there is an issue that arises.”

“That would be a big plus on my checklist,” said Israel Ortiz, father of eight children ages 5 to 23. “An extra like, ‘Oh wow this is a benefit to my kids.’”

Ortiz says while he didn’t have mental health resources when he was in school, things have changed.

“Nowadays I think mental health is a lot more important,” said Ortiz.

Beyond the stresses of COVID-19, he worries about the toll of social media on his children.

“Having so many kids,” Ortiz said. “They don’t always open up to their parents, as much as we would like to, so it’s important to have somebody at school available.”

“I think development happens so early in life,” said Sue Huynh who has a daughter in first grade. “And with the pandemic, and everything being shut down and a lot of kids not getting the social interactions they need, this is as important as ever.”

Most parents NBC 7 spoke with on the playground said mental health is a top concern for their little ones.

“Having it at school where access is free,” Huynh said. “Is so important for so many families in San Diego.”

But NBC 7 Investigates learned eight of the largest school districts in our county don’t meet national expert recommendations for the number of school counselors or psychologists.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), a national advocacy group, recommends one psychologist for every 500 students. The association for school counselors recommends one counselor per every 250 students. But statewide, California misses the mark, with just one school counselor for every 601 students.

Locally, none of the districts that responded to NBC 7 Investigates’ request met the counselor recommendation. Just two districts (Oceanside and Cajon Valley) met psychologist industry standards.

One district, Sweetwater Union High, has less than half the recommended number of psychologists, with just one for every 1,200 students. And Escondido Union has less than one-fifth of the recommended number of school counselors at just one for every 1,300 students.

A spokeswoman for Sweetwater sent NBC 7 a statement saying the district contracts with the county health department and partners with various health providers to offer students and families mental health support. The district also has one of the lowest student-to-counselor ratios in the state with a 360:1 caseload.

Escondido Union did not provide a statement in response to NBC 7 findings.

Parents NBC 7 spoke with say these numbers matter and could swing their decision about where they put their kids in school.

“It’s good that you’re asking this,” Ortiz said.

“Thank you for bringing this up,” Huynh said. “I think it’s super important and I hope that all schools have the resources to help their kids through this pandemic.”

NBC 7 reached out to San Diego Unified and Vista Unified,– but those school districts did not provide us with the number of school psychologists or counselors on staff.

While many of the school districts failed to meet national standards, most districts that responded to us have increased the number of school psychologists and counselors over the summer. 

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