Colorado school districts are spending more money 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 of about 790 full-time school psychologists, according to an I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS analysis. That number has increased by 4 percent in the last three academic years, according to data the Colorado Department of Education has collected from 78 districts.
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.
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, pointing 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 last full year of data analyzed. The number increases annually by more than 2,100 students, 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.