Advocate: Clay County school counselors are 'borderline abused'

Warning comes from teachers union as students head back to class next week

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter

CLAY COUNTY, Fla. - A warning from the teachers union in Clay County: the district is short on teachers and the teacher's union rep says school counselors are being  "overburdened" and  "borderline abused.” 

School guidance counselors are tasked with finding key warning signs in troubled students. But Renna Lee Paiva said school counselors are all too often pulled away from important counseling duties in order to oversee monotonous schoolwide testing, a task not included in their job descriptions.

"You don't think we have a teachers' crisis? You just wait and see. We have a huge teachers' crisis in the state of Florida," said Paiva, president of the Clay County Education Association. Paiva is a former guidance counselor herself. She now advocates for them and all teachers and instructional staff. 

Just this week, she bargained with the district to get teachers, counselors and instructional staffers a $2,000 raise, the largest ever in the county's history. She said that, while the pay increase is helpful, she is concerned with the lack of a full-time testing coordinator in Clay County.

The I-TEAM investigated her concerns, and those of other counselors who reached out to News4Jax with similar concerns, and found that schools in Duval and St. Johns counties have other employees, such as assistant principals or other administrators, who serve as testing coordinators to help ease the burden, but Clay County does not. 

"Clay is the one who has put the burden on counselors," Paiva said.

Mental health for students remains in the spotlight after it was revealed that the Dayton, Ohio, mass shooter who killed nine people in 30 seconds had a hit list discovered in high school. This comes one year after the massacre of students at a Parkland high school. Then-Gov. Rick Scott mandated mental health become a priority in Florida.

Funding was increased for counseling and school resource officers. But the I-TEAM uncovered that the funding increase hasn't helped Clay County alleviate the additional burden of testing on school counselors.

For decades, federal data shows Florida has ranked last -- 50th out of 50 states -- for per capita spending on mental health. The state teachers union says our teachers' pay is ranked 46th lowest in the country.

Add in that guidance counselors, who are required to hold master's degrees, are now being pulled away from counseling altogether. 

Paiva went before the school board in May to sound the alarm on the practice. 

"Something has to be done. The workload and expectations placed on these counselors is borderline abusive,” she said.

While guidance counselors proctor tests on the given day for testing in Duval and St. Johns counties, they don't oversee the implementation as they do from start to finish in Clay County.

"It's hundreds of hours to prepare for a test in a school and there are numerous tests. It's not in their job description but it's given to them," Paiva argued.

After Paiva's passionate speech in May,  the school board asked Clay County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis to review the practice. Paiva said she thinks Davis hears the cry for change but, so far, no testing coordinator has been promised and she's worried. She blames the Legislature for overall cutbacks in public education funding.

"That's not a measurable thing to sit in front of Mr. Davis and say, 'We've stopped this many suicides. We stopped this many Baker Acts. We stopped this many school shooters.' How do you measure that? You don't even know that. But counselors know," Paiva said.

Davis did not provide a comment but he said it's up to the principals' discretion who oversees testing at each school and it's up to counselors to agree to do it. However, Paiva said a counselor essentially can't decline the task if assigned, as it's a directive from a direct supervisor.

News4Jax also uncovered another issue: School guidance counselors locally simply have too many students to counsel. 

The national recommendation is one counselor to every 250 students. We analyzed statewide data and found ratios fluctuated between elementary, middle and high schools, and also fluctuated among different county school districts. The state average for Clay County is one counselor to every 400 students. In St. Johns and Duval counties, there can sometimes be one counselor for 500 students -- double the recommended amount. Again, those are just averages. We heard one St. Johns County elementary school has one counselor to every 700 students.

Copyright 2019 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.