Republicans’ Effort to Fund Police Instead of Counselors Leaves Some Schools in a Difficult Situation

Brian Miller is a regular presence at Charles W. Harris School in Phoenix, seen by kids and parents four times a week.

Throughout the mornings and afternoons, Miller can be found in the parking lot, directing traffic and occasionally diffusing road rage incidents. Before lunchtime, he guides students from the playground to the cafeteria or assists teachers in classrooms. In between, he patrols the campus or remains on standby in his office for serious disciplinary issues or lockdowns due to nearby crimes.

However, Miller acknowledges that he does not provide comprehensive mental health services to the many students who require them. This is where Cartwright Elementary District’s counselors and psychologists come in.

Brian Miller, a school resource officer for Charles W. Harris School in Phoenix, greets children at the school during his shift on Dec. 7, 2023. (Brendon Derr/The Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting)

District officials believe that having both types of positions is crucial for maintaining a secure campus. As a result, they requested funding from the Arizona School Safety Program for one officer and one additional counselor at 19 schools, including Harris. However, the state only approved funding for the officers at all 19 schools due to a legislative requirement prioritizing campus police over mental health positions.

This year, more than 100 schools in the state received funding for officers while their requests for counselors or social workers went unfulfilled. Additionally, an analysis of School Safety Program data by AZCIR revealed that another 130 schools that specifically requested mental health positions did not receive them.

In total, district and charter schools applied for 857 counselor and social worker positions and 301 campus officer positions. The applications highlighted various issues such as bullying, trauma, suicidal thoughts, and truancy. However, due to limited funds, approximately a third of the mental health positions, or 291 positions, remained unfunded.

This mismatch in funding demonstrates an ongoing disagreement about which positions are most effective in ensuring campus safety. Supporters of campus police argue that officers are best equipped to handle dangerous situations, while advocates for mental health services believe counselors, social workers, and psychologists can prevent many issues before they escalate.

School officials interviewed by AZCIR were hesitant to criticize the School Safety Program, but they emphasized that decisions about staffing should be made by school leaders rather than politicians. They firmly believe that school leaders are better suited to address the surge in mental health issues among students.

Monika Fuller, director of Prescott Valley School, expressed her belief that schools have a better understanding of their needs. She pointed to the breakdown of funding requests, stating that the “numbers don’t lie.”

The Arizona School Safety Program initially aimed to fund school resource and juvenile probation officers. However, in 2019, it expanded to cover counselors and social workers due to the state’s high student-to-counselor ratio and a lack of mental health professionals on campuses. Despite the expansion, demand for counselors and social workers exceeded the program’s capacity, resulting in a lengthy waitlist that continued to grow during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, the state Department of Education allocated $21 million in federal pandemic relief funds to address the unfunded positions for campus counselors and social workers. This move eliminated the waitlist and improved the student-to-counselor ratio to 651:1. However, schools expressed the need for a stable, permanent funding source to ensure ongoing support for mental health staffing.

Instead of providing a sustainable funding source, the GOP-controlled Legislature extended the School Safety Program for another three-year cycle with a stipulation that the additional $50 million be allocated to school police requests before considering counselor and social worker needs.

While schools were technically allowed to apply for up to two positions of either type, Superintendent Tom Horne warned that schools without an armed presence would not receive a recommendation for funding. This led some schools to prioritize their requests for school resource officers to ensure they received at least some funding.

However, campus officers cannot fulfill the same role as school counselors or social workers, despite some overlapping responsibilities. Angela Kimball, senior vice president of advocacy at Inseparable, explained that school resource officers approach behaviors from an enforcement perspective, while mental health professionals view them as manifestations of underlying challenges faced by students. Kimball emphasized the importance of hiring mental health professionals who can provide specialized support rather than training individuals to fulfill those roles.

Prescott Valley School

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