Student leaders: Tempe Union HS District should invest in counselors, not cops

Photo by Juanmonino/iStock

While Tempe Union High School District has made strides in supporting student social and emotional wellness, we are still losing far too many of our friends to mental health crises.

In the next week, the district has the opportunity to invest $450,000 into seven new support counselors, rather than four School Resource Officers (SROs)—armed police officers on campus. All four of us have served or are preparing to serve as the student body president at Desert Vista High School, and we all are in favor of investing in support counselors. 

Together, we have witnessed firsthand both the negative impact of SROs on campus and the urgent need for more support counselors and social workers at school.

Our need for stronger mental health support began long before 2020. Our community knows this. We attached stickers with suicide hotlines on the back of students’ IDs that students never wore. And it is unrealistic to ask our already overburdened teachers and administrators to fulfill the role of a dedicated support counselor. 

Rather, one of the most effective ways we can better support student mental health is to double the number of support counselors on campus. In fact, the ACLU found that students are 21 times more likely to visit school-based health centers over community health centers for mental health support. By providing support counselors on campus, schools can reduce barriers like transportation, financial concerns and shame in asking for help. 

Even though some students have good relationships with SROs, an SRO does not fill the role of a professional support counselor. Walking into Desert Vista every day, the sight of an armed police officer makes students feel unsafe and nervous in a space that should be rooted in inclusion and love. Furthermore, TUHSD data reported to the Department of Education’s 2015 Civil Rights Survey found that Black students in the district are 3 times more likely than their white peers to be referred to law enforcement.

As students, we also constantly think about our physical safety. We feel safe having a qualified team of security guards—who are known and loved by our students—at each of our schools. The guards monitor enters and exits, break up fights, and coordinate with the front office.

Investing in counselors also does not mean getting rid of all SROs. Rather, it means sharing SROs between campuses instead of each school having an armed officer assigned to it. Chandler Unified District and Phoenix Union District both follow this model, and are able to still protect students.

We students need mental health staff who are trained to notice and respond to stress and trauma. Desert Vista has more than 3,600 students, but only one dedicated support counselor and seven academic guidance counselors. Most students we spoke to barely even came in contact with their guidance counselor until their senior year of high school. 

One support counselor for 3,600 students is not enough.

This coming school year, students will still face even greater emotional and mental health challenges, including from Covid-19 and distance learning. Rather than spending the $450,000 on four armed police officers, we encourage the district to invest in seven new support counselors to support us in this huge shift to our education, social lives, and mental health.