COMMENTARY: More school counselors would help diminish adverse childhood experiences

Recently, I was pleased to be a part of a very successful pair of events held in Duncan, sponsored by Pathways to a Healthier You, the Potts Family Foundation, and several local partners.
Two viewings of the documentary film “Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope” brought together more than 600 people to learn about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma-informed care. Oklahoma unfortunately ranks top among the 50 states with the highest percentage of children experiencing high levels of “toxic stress” and extreme, long-term exposure to situations which lead to poor health conditions as adults.

Oklahoma’s First Lady, Sarah Stitt, moderated the panel discussion during which she was candid about her youth and the struggles her mother endured with mental illness. She spoke about how this affected her and the rest of her family.
This is a subject she has made a part of her platform as First Lady to help Oklahomans. She said that at almost every event someone confides with her that they have also had a similar circumstance but was embarrassed to open up about it before hearing her.

Counseling services, once considered something by many for the weak, are now thankfully used at a much greater rate. I have found it beneficial to open up to a professional about the loss of friends and family during my youth. No one is immune to grief and sometimes it takes talking about it to help further the healing process. Most insurance providers allow for counseling sessions; if you need help, or if something is lingering with which you need help, please explore options for assistance.

It also was good for the community to come together and realize that no place is free from difficult issues. I related a story about a child who was bullied at school, eventually having her life threatened by a classmate. The girl who was bullying said she was going to bring a knife to school and kill her victim. Both children were eight years old at the time.
This is the kind of situation that needs to be handled the proper way. The child who was making the threats needed counseling and help, not a suspension. A suspension would send her back to the home life which likely created this mindset to lash out at others and make threats.
Sometimes, schools are the only safe haven for children experiencing severe trauma at home. To do this the right way, we need to have more counselors in our schools who are properly trained to handle such situations and help prevent chaos in the classroom, which no teacher should have to endure.

Oklahoma ranks well below the suggested level needed for school counselors. A report issued by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) last year shows the ratio of student-to-counselor numbers are narrowing nationally, currently at a rate of 455-to-1, reaching a 31-year low. This is still nearly twice the recommended 250 students per counselor suggested ratio. Oklahoma ranks at 439-to-1, with 693,903 students and 1,582 school counselors.
We are hopeful Oklahoma legislators will give proper funding to improve this ratio of counselors to students and modernize our school suspension laws to reduce the number of students sent home. 
Instead, we must find ways to help children deal with the issues causing them to lash out and help reduce this trauma. OICA will continue to raise awareness on this issue and keep you informed as the session progresses.

NOTE: Joe Dorman, a former state representative, is chief executive officer at the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy. In 2012, he ran for governor of Oklahoma as a Democrat. His essays appear often in The City Sentinel newspaper’s print editions and online, and at the CapitolBeatOK news website.