School districts throughout the state once more lurched into the school year with the nation’s worst ratio of counselors to students.

State lawmakers this year approved an extra $6 million to hire school counselors and police-officer school resource officers, but the state department of education held up distribution of the money for lack of an application process.

Arizona has one counselor for every 903 students, more than twice the national average of 455. The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 205 students.

Payson School Board member Joanne Conlin at a recent meeting asked newly hired Superintendent Stan Rentz to schedule a work session on district goals, including ways to bolster counseling for students. “I do believe that children need to be able to talk to somebody in a safe environment, I just feel that we need to have some student counselors.”

Director of Finance Kathie Manning noted that the money for perhaps 200 more counselors and school resource officers statewide won’t show up until next year. “The money for counselors is kind of hung up with the state board of education. The Legislature did approve adding money for counselors and security officers — but there’s nothing we can apply for yet.”

Arizona also has one of the highest teen suicide rates in the country, with an increasing number of students dealing with a family crisis and depression. The state also has a rising school dropout rate and a low college attendance rate.

Students say they can’t get effective help in making sure they’re meeting the state’s complicated college attendance requirements, much less help filling out things like the federally maintained FASA website that determines who gets financial aid.

Rim Country schools have also struggled to cope with the mental health and family issues. The suicide rate for Arizona children ages 15-19 increased from 6.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2013 to 13.8 per 100,000 in 2015, according to the state Department of Health Services, before dipping back down to 11.9 in 2017.

Gila, Navajo and Apache counties all have a far higher suicide rate than the rest of the state. The rate in Gila is 37.6, in Navajo 43.9 and in Apache 33 deaths per 100,000. That compares to a state average of 18 per 100,000. Only La Paz County — at 46.2 — has a higher rate.

Generally, rural areas have double the suicide rate of urban areas — but rural schools often have fewer counselors than urban schools.

Last year a high school student’s suicide rocked the community during an investigation into allegations that many high school and middle school students were sending sexually explicit texts and images to one another, which they sometimes forwarded to other people. The school counselors had no real ability to deal with such large-scale incidents on a one-on-one basis. Mostly, they focus on academic requirements like making sure students have the classes they need to simply graduate.

Arizona’s high school dropout rate of 7.8 percent in 2017 ranks as the highest in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The state’s graduation rate stands at 78 percent, which is 44th nationally.

Apache County had the worst graduation rate in the state, with only 73.5 percent of students graduating on time. Gila County was almost as bad, with a graduation rate of 75 percent. Navajo County had a graduation rate of 79.7 percent, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

After years of cuts in money for schools in the face of rising suicide rates and dwindling graduation rates, lawmakers this year approved Gov. Ducey’s request to add $12 million over the next two years to school funding for counselors and school resource officers, cops stationed on campus mostly to provide school security.

The money would pay for about 200 counselors and school workers, cutting the ratio to about one counselor for every 750 students. That’s still nearly double the national average and close to three times the recommended standard. It would take an extra $80 million to get Arizona to the national standard of one counselor for every 250 students.

The Red for Ed teacher walkouts last year included a plea for an increase in counselors. Lawmakers responded by providing money for a three-year, 20 percent average teacher raise — but excluded counselors from the calculations. Districts remain free to include counselors in their calculations by slightly reducing the amount that goes to teachers.

Senate Bill 1344 requiring one counselor for every 550 students in every district in the state by 2024 never got out of committee.

Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 1468 requiring schools to provide suicide awareness and prevention training to counselors, teachers and principals in grades 6-12, starting in the 2020-21 school year.

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