Colorado school districts are spending more of their budgets on psychologist positions, but the service providers still struggle with large caseloads and a growing number of students with severe behavioral and learning problems.
The state currently has the equivalent 791 full-time school psychologists. That number has inched up 4 percent in the last three academic years, according to data the Colorado Department of Education has collected from 78 districts.
Franci Crepeau-Hobson, former president of the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, said not all schools employ mental health staff.
“There’s actually a national shortage of school psychologists where there are positions open that schools can’t fill and that’s been the case for Colorado for some years, especially for rural and inner-city schools,” Crepeau-Hobson said.
Crepeau-Hobson, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education and Human Development, said that the problems professionals are seeing are getting worse.
“What I’m hearing from the graduates of our program is there are more kids with more severe mental health issues,” she said.
Barb Bieber, the school psychology consultant for the state Department of Education, agreed and pointed out the rising number of students being diagnosed with autism. Since 2010, about 1,100 more students statewide were categorized with autism or autism spectrum disorders bringing the number up to 4,878.
Even more students have some sort of emotional disorder, about 6,680, or roughly eight percent of all those who receive special education services.
Altogether about 88,830 students received special education services as of December 2012. The number has increased each year by more than 2,100 students since 2010, according to the most recent annual special education report from the state.
“The caseloads are too large. That’s been true for some time,” Bieber said.
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of no more than 1,000 enrolled students per psychologist. In reality only a dozen or so Colorado districts with more than 1,000 students meet that ratio.
Denver Public Schools surpasses the recommendation and has a school psychologist for every 871 students. Last year the district provided nearly 9,500 students with special education services. That was the largest number in the state followed by Douglas RE-1 with 6,121 and Arapahoe 5 with 6,048 students.
Gilpin County RE-1, Lamar RE-2 and West End RE-2 don’t have a school psychologist on payroll. Hinsdale County RE-1, Park County RE-2, Lake County RE-1 and eight other districts only have part-time positions available. In comparison, DPS has more than 95 psychologists, Cherry Creek 5 has about 80 and Jefferson County has about 68 on staff.
School psychologists help promote safer schools, according to several studies. They are required by law to alert authorities if a student poses imminent danger to others or him or herself, or if child abuse is suspected.
Interest in the mental health of students has been particularly heightened by mass shooting tragedies, including those at Columbine, the Aurora Theater and Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.
“If there’s a situation where we were worried about a student I’d be the person who would be called,” said Bobbi Ambroso, a school psychologist for Adams 14. “For the mental health piece, I’m the first line of defense a lot of times.”
Adams 14 is one of 19 districts piloting a new evaluation system that the state plans to roll out next year. The system allows principals to determine if a service providers meet five standards including supporting or establishing safe and respectful learning environments for diverse populations of students.
“It does offer consistency for the expectation of the role of a school psychologist, but I do see there being a lot of variability across districts and schools for what pieces of the evaluation you’re responsible for,” Ambroso said.
The evaluation does not address the funding of school psychologists, the distribution of mental health grants, caseloads or severity of problems.
“I don’t think my job is ever going to look the same as another school psychologists and that’s OK because our role is shaped by our community,” Ambroso said. “I’d rather fill the role that’s needed rather than just the one that’s on paper.”