School shooting puts focus on bullying, counselors' burdens
By Brian Bakst
ST. PAUL -- By many accounts, the Rocori high school freshman charged with shooting two classmates, one of them fatally, endured endless teasing over his severe acne.
Whether the torment led to Wednesday's attack isn't known. Authorities won't comment on a motive, say much about the relationship between the suspect and his victims or reveal what the jailed boy, 15-year-old Jason McLaughlin, has told them.
But the possibility harassment played a role is sure to shine a new light on intimidation in schools and steps that can be taken to prevent it. Already, a state lawmaker said she will push for a law next year requiring schools to set strong anti-bullying policies.
And some mental health experts are troubled by Minnesota's ratio of 800 students for every counselor, the nation's second-largest. These experts worry that violence prevention and counseling programs wind up low on priority lists as schools struggle to balance ailing budgets.
They say guidance counselors, who are perhaps best equipped to assist children with behavioral or emotional problems, are overburdened with other responsibilities -- from helping students pick courses to giving them career advice.
"School counselors end up responding primarily to students in crisis and the prevention work gets pushed aside," said Dr. Walter Roberts Jr., a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University in Mankato.
According to the American School Counselor Association, only California had a larger ratio of students to counselors in the 1999-2000 school year, at 994 to 1. The group's recommended ratio is 250-to-1.
Minnesota law doesn't address how many counselors districts must have on staff, Education Department spokesman Doug Gray said. In the 2002-03 school year, there were 1,064 guidance counselors registered with the state and 836,854 students.
Roberts called the ratio "outrageous."
"No medical doctor would take a caseload like school counselors in Minnesota have. Could a medical doctor care for 500 patients all at once? School counselors serve every kid in their building or buildings for that matter," he said. "How difficult is it for school counselors to reach the kids they want to serve if they are overburdened?"
In the southeastern Minnesota district of Hayfield, Kathy Connelly is the only counselor on staff. When she was hired 15 years ago, there were three.
Connelly spends her time dealing with the 460 students in grades 7-12; the district's elementary school doesn't have a full-time counselor. Other school staff members often pick up the slack.
"We train the teachers. We train the staff. We train them to be available if I'm out of the building," Connelly said.
To school leaders' credit, she said, Hayfield has preserved a seventh-grade adolescent skills class that stresses techniques students can use to resolve conflicts peacefully.
Connelly, the past president of Minnesota's school counselor association, is discouraged by school districts that have cut back.
"As counseling is cut and prevention programs are cut, we lose the opportunity to have that consistency across the grade level," she said. "Any good educator knows that if you stop teaching them math at fifth grade, when they get to be seniors math's going to be a tough subject for them."
Roberts, who conducts anti-bullying seminars, said schools need to do a better job of working those lessons into their routine and not just focus on them after a crisis.