The mental health crisis facing our nation’s children is well-documented and undisputed. So, too, is the dire shortage of mental health professionals in communities and schools. But a bill passed by Texas lawmakers yesterday to address the crisis by turning to chaplains is not without controversy.
Texas Senate Bill 763 would allow unlicensed chaplains to serve as counselors in public schools, in either a volunteer or paid capacity. The bill has now passed in both the state Senate and House along party lines, and is expected to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. If made law, the act would take effect in the 2023-2024 school year.
“We have to give schools all the tools; with all we’re experiencing, with mental health problems, other crises, this is just another tool,” said state Rep. Cole Hefner, a Republican and sponsor of the bill, during a debate on it earlier this month.
But Texas Rep. Jim Talarico, a Democrat, yesterday questioned Hefner on the wisdom of using chaplains, many of whom may lack training in school counseling, as school counselors. “Do you think a chaplain can replace a school counselor?” Talarico asked Hefner, who responded: “I trust our school districts to make that determination.”
In that exchange, Hefner also stated that the chaplains “can either come in and work alongside counselors, or replace them.” The bill allows school districts to use funds currently allocated for school safety and security to support chaplains in their new role.
Critics cite a lack of credentials, potential religious bias as problematic
The funding mechanism is just one problem with the bill according to critics, including Michael O’Briant, speaking on behalf of the Texas School Counselor Association, of which he is a board member.
“These [chaplains] are people who just walk in the door, they have no certification,” said O’Briant, who is also a middle school counselor in Texas’s San Angelo Independent School District. “We are school counselors who hold master’s degrees in school counseling.”
While it’s common in a crisis situation, such as a mass shooting, for people from a religious background to offer support on an immediate and limited basis, he said, that’s “completely different than being employed in a school system.”
“Even as an active member of my church and a Christian, it’s concerning to me that we’re bringing in, I’m fairly certain, chaplains who would be representing only one of the myriad of religions expressed across the state,” O’Briant said. “We’ve had Muslim and Hindu students here in our building; those parents would not want their children served by” Christian chaplains. Lawmakers, in fact, voted down an amendment to the bill that would have required chaplains to serve students of all faiths, and not to proselytize, according to news reports.
Bill calls into question separation of church and state
Critics see the bill as a continuation of recent erosion of the distinction between religion and government. Last year, for instance, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling determined that a Washington state school board had discriminated against a football coach for disciplining him for praying on the field after games. That ruling appears to stand in opposition to earlier rulings by U.S. courts that “have determined that public schools are an ‘arm of the state’ and thus can do nothing to hinder or promote religion,” wrote Jill Heinrich, an education professor at Cornell College and an expert on the separation of church and state in American public education.
Added O’Briant: “The word indoctrination is thrown around quite a bit—the fear that we, as educators, are somehow indoctrinating students into particular lifestyles. But this would be someone actually paid to do that.”
Others in the mental health profession, however, said they would welcome the expanded access to mental health support the bill could provide.
“The more adults and peers that we can get supporting the mental health of our youth, the better,” said Sharon A. Hoover, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health. “We cannot treat our way out of this youth mental health crisis with child mental health specialists alone; rather, we must take an all-hands-on-deck approach and give mental health away to all that are in positions of support, whether that be faith leaders, peers, mentors, or other community members.”