NFL suicide prevention night

Minnesota Vikings player Stephen Weatherly shakes hands with David Lee, a ninth-grade student at Blue Ridge Junior High. Weatherly visited with fans outside the BRHS auditorium in April as part of NFL Suicide Prevention Night. Suicide is just one of several critical issues afffecting students that could be impacted by an increase in the number of school counselors.

NAVAJO & APACHE COUNTIES — 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’s Association recommends one counselor for every 205 students.

The lack of school counselors hits especially hard in rural areas, with twice the teen suicide rate of urban counties - but fewer resources in the schools.

Navajo County suffers the highest suicide rate in the state, with Apache County not far behind.

The two rural counties also have a much higher school dropout rate and a much lower college attendance rate than either the state or national average.

Counselors mostly focus on making students finish the classes they need to graduate and get into college if they chose. But increasingly counselors have to deal with a daunting array of social problems - especially in rural schools, where most of the families are low income and many deal with major disruptions.

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

Apache and Navajo county students 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.

The suicide rate in Navajo county is 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. Santa Cruz County's rate is just 4.3 per 100,000.

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

Arizona’s high school dropout rate of 7.8 percent in 2017 ranks as the highest in the nation, according to the US 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. Navajo County had a graduation rate of 79.7, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

After years of cuts in funding for schools and 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 and 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 did approve 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.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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