The counselor gap and troubled children

Shooting aftermath: Colorado tragedy raises questions about outmanned school counselors.

May 01, 1999

THE MASSACRE at Columbine High School raises concern about the adequacy of gun laws, parents, the juvenile justice system -- guidance counselors in schools.

The media quickly sought out counselors around the nation after the shooting in Littleton, Colo., to determine signals missed and methods to prevent another such tragedy. One conclusion: School counselors typically have such crushing caseloads of hundreds, even thousands, of pupils that they can't identify, much less reach, seriously disturbed children.

Anonymity is chronic at huge high schools of 1,500 students-plus, such as Columbine. In Maryland, the overall ratio of students to counselors is 1 to 550. In California, worst in the nation, it's 1 to 1,100.

FOR THE RECORD - A chart accompanying an editorial on school guidance counselor caseloads Saturday should have listed the average number of students per counselor in Anne Arundel County as 557 in elementary schools and 340 in high schools. The Sun regrets the error.

But that's still better than in Baltimore elementary schools, where the average caseload is 2,205 students per counselor, who is often assigned to several schools. Some schools go uncovered. Baltimore elementary schools were among the first in the country to hire guidance counselors in the 1950s, but eliminated them in the '70s and were slow to replenish them. Almost every system in Maryland has its heaviest guidance caseloads at the elementary level -- despite the fact that the earlier youngsters with emotional problems are spotted, the better.

Last spring, parents in Carroll County were alarmed by a middle-schooler's fictional account of her murder of a peer. Counselors and teachers reassured them that they knew the author, who received permission from the classmate she cast as the victim. Two days ago, police arrested students in Glen Burnie after receiving tips about explosives stored in a garage.

The incidents underscore the need for more adults, including professionally trained guidance counselors, to be alert to the difference between an adolescent's strange imagination and an emotional powder keg poised to erupt.

Number of students per counselor (American Counseling Association recommends 250 to 1):

Jurisdictions, Elementary, Middle High

Anne Arundel 340 323 557

Baltimore 2,205 385 324

Balto. Co. 550 370 350

Carroll Co. 648 446 371

Harford Co. 637 388 319

Howard Co. 879 266 275

State avg. 623 358 319

SOURCE: Maryland Department of Education

Pub Date: 5/01/99

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