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Pushing for Change in School Mental Health Care: Dr. Caroline Lopez-Perry & the ACLU

Published November 18, 2019

Dr. Caroline Lopez-Perry, Assistant Professor in the School Counseling program, has been spearheading a 2020 campaign partnership between the California Association of School Counselors (CASC) and the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to address the mental health needs of TK-12 students in California. Schools across the country are recognizing the rising mental health needs of students. Most notably, recent teacher strikes across California brought attention to the issue as teachers clamored for more school-based mental health providers - school counselors, nurses, and school psychologists. An estimated 32% of adolescents have an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Twelve percent of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 say they have experienced one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. A recent report from the CDC indicated that the suicide rate for young people aged 10 to 24 rose 56% between 2007 and 2017. Despite these alarming trends, the mental health crisis in California schools has largely remained unaddressed.  

The CASC-ACLU campaign recognizes that school-based mental health supports, access to school counselors, school psychologists, nurses, and school social workers are a student's civil right. The ACLU recently reported that 400,000 students in California attend a school with a police officer and no school counselor, and nearly 600 school districts do not currently have school counselors at all. While the national recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250:1, California is currently ranked 47th in the nation with an average caseload of 622:1. 

Dr. Lopez-Perry has been speaking to district leaders, policymakers, and stakeholders to highlight the critical role school counselors and school-based credentialed support staff play in addressing student mental health. Her work has focused on preventive interventions that can best address multiple cumulative risk factors at an early stage of development. She was recently invited as a panel speaker at the CASC superintendent symposium to discuss school counselors' comprehensive approach to prevention within a multi-tiered system of support. This summer, she co-authored CASC's "Best Practice Guidelines for California School Counselors." This document outlines the contributions school counselors make to students' academic success, as well as their frontline approach to improving school climate, decreasing chronic absenteeism, and improving students' transition from high school to college and other postsecondary options. Dr. Lopez-Perry, in collaboration with 2nd-year school counseling students and SoCal ACLU, is working on a report which will be forthcoming early next year. The report will highlight current ratios in California for school-based mental health providers (school counselors, psychologists, nurses, and social workers.)