As a high school counselor and coach in West Hartford, I recently testified before our state legislators on how best to support Connecticut schools after the December tragedy in Newtown.
Some well-meaning people have proposed placing armed security officers in every school. Others have called for arming teachers, at best a questionable idea. Case in point: Despite the hearing's somber note, many laughed when I asked them to imagine teachers from their school days packing heat in the hallways.
Given the horror of Newtown, the impulse to protect our children in such ways is understandable. But, I think it's short-sighted.
In the long run, adding counselors (or a social worker or psychologist) to schools is a sure way to make our children safer. I hate to make this an "either-or" discussion about armed guards vs. trained counselors, but given tight budgets, the choice may come down to that. (As for equipping teachers with guns, let's table that option forever.)
Some believe guidance counselors simply help kids choose courses and advise the bright ones on which colleges to consider. But for most of us, that's a small part of our day. Many hours are spent working with students in crisis or working to head off such crises.
In a typical week my schedule might include the following:
I attend four team meetings about educating students with special needs and lead another about vital accommodations for a learning disabled student. Then, with the one-year anniversary of two student suicides approaching, I meet twice with other crisis staff to plan for potential fallout.
I offer condolences at the wake and funeral of a sophomore girl's father and meet one-on-one with other students, moved by his death and her grief. I make a home visit to persuade a truant freshman to come to school. I find a translator to help me explain to a non-English-speaking mom that her daughter is failing most of her classes.
I talk with a judge and transition specialist about a currently incarcerated student and his return to school. For a student at risk of dropping out of school, I set up a professional drug and alcohol assessment. I meet individually with more than 20 freshmen to review their course selections.
I talk with three girls, worried about their close friend's budding eating disorder. To three families slammed by the economy, I give financial advice: how to pay for weekly bills, graduation events and college. And I answer lots and lots of emails.
West Hartford — like Newtown — is a wonderful school district. But I and my mental health colleagues do lots and lots of triage. We pride ourselves on building relationships, but many begin with a crisis. And that stinks.
One of my daughters attends William Hall High School, where I work. She learned that I was testifying about school safety and attended the hearing with me. Her take was insightful: Instead of armed guards, hire additional school counselors, who will prevent countless tragedies — suicides, dropouts, drug and alcohol abuse, unwanted pregnancies, the isolation and deterioration of teens with mental illness. Counselors also will inspire kids, teach coping skills, model healthy relationships and so on.
Not to knock guards, but catching these problems before they ignite into crises is not in their job description. "Guards," she said, "you hope will never need to do their job. Counselors you know will!"
No community — suburban or urban — is immune from the destructive potential that lies in wait. But schools can become safer.
We can start by making them places that when kids — every one of them — arrive each day, they know that there's an adult in that building on whom they can count.
Steve Boyle is a school counselor and coaches girls' varsity lacrosse and freshman soccer at Hall High School in West Hartford.