Student Well-Being

Critical Analysis

By Candice Dyer — October 01, 2002 10 min read
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From counseling kids to planning for crises, school psychologists are increasingly vital.

Reflecting on her previous day’s work, Deborah Crockett sighs and shakes her head at an unpleasant coincidence. “I had just left for the day yesterday— literally at my car, putting my key in my lock—when someone came running into the parking lot and told me a girl was threatening suicide on school grounds,” she says. “The strange thing is, just before that happened, I was revamping our suicide assessment procedure.”

Such twists of fate are common in her profession, explains Crockett, the consultant school psychologist for Fayette County, about 15 miles south of Atlanta. “This is the sort of job where you can be in the middle of crisis training and have to go to that very crisis,” she notes.

It was around 5:30 p.m., and the guidance counselor at the girl’s school had already left for the evening. So Crockett raced to the scene to help calm the distraught teenager. Although the psychologist declines to provide details in the interest of the student’s privacy, Crockett says she handled the crisis like any other: by the book. For suicide threats, she says, “I have three pages of questions to ask: ‘How long have you been thinking about this? All the time or now and then? Do you have a gun or have access to one?’ You don’t want them to stop talking to you. You want to find out when and how and how much they’ve planned.”

Today, first thing in the morning, Crockett is hunched over the phone in her office at the Lafayette Education Center, one of the school district’s administrative buildings, discussing the girl’s condition with her guidance counselor. “Everything appears to be stable now,” she announces with relief when she’s done.

At 57, Crockett is a straight-talking, earth-mother type. She wears her slate-colored hair in a bob with a dramatic streak of white. (“Turned that color in my 20s,” she notes.) And she looks you in the eye as she speaks her mind in a buttery voice—though she’s not inclined to butter anyone up. “I don’t go for that warm-and-fuzzy, touchy-feely bullshit, those ‘daily affirmations’ of self-esteem and whatever, that so many people in this profession do,” says Crockett, rolling her eyes and pointing mischievously to a sign on the bulletin board above her desk. It reads: “If you want breakfast in bed, sleep in the kitchen.” “Kids need adults who will speak frankly with them,” she explains.

For many years, speaking frankly to kids was not the main task of school psychologists. Brought into districts in the 1970s to serve as gatekeepers for special education programs, they initially focused on administering and analyzing diagnostic tests. But straight talk has become the stock in trade of Crockett and her colleagues in recent years, as their role has expanded dramatically. With the current, all-hands-on-deck approach to preventing crises such as school shootings, educators are increasingly reaching out to the mental health experts in their midst.

“We’ve moved away from just assessing students to also serving as consultants for the schools and the community, collaborating more with groups, and using our background to try to prevent problems at an early age,” explains Ross Pesce, a school psychologist in Cicero, a suburb of Chicago. “And these primary prevention efforts focus on all students, not just the at-risk ones.”

One in five young people experiences some significant emotional problem during his or her school years, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. And such troubles are on the rise. “I’ve seen in recent years increasing numbers of very young children with significant emotional and behavioral disorders,” says Diane Smallwood, president of the NASP. “That appears to be a trend that is evident throughout the country, and responding to the needs of these children can drain the mental health resources available in most elementary schools.”

Unfortunately, not enough people are entering the field to keep up with this increasing demand. “Just about every state is reporting a critical shortage of adequately trained people in the past couple of years,” says Bob Lichtenstein, the school psychology consultant for the Connecticut Department of Education. “As more baby boomers retire and those seats are left vacant, school psychologists could well be [an] endangered species.”

An estimated 26,000 school psychologists serve students in the United States, each one typically assigned to several schools. Like Crockett, who works with 27 schools, a single psychologist sometimes oversees an entire district. All deal with a range of policy and curriculum issues. They work in cooperation with guidance counselors, the mental health professionals assigned to a particular school who focus on the individual needs of students, including college applications.

These days, in addition to testing students, school psychologists counsel depressed kids, design curricula to promote values, and work closely with emergency responders to prepare for crises. The events of September 11, 2001, presented psychologists with perhaps their most challenging task yet: helping students cope with the national trauma and ongoing fears of terrorism. “Now you have to plan for catastrophe, period,” Crockett observes. “Which is not something you can truly plan for.”

One in five young people experiences some significant emotional problem during his or her school years.

Spending time with Crockett, a past president of the NASP and a 20-year veteran of the Georgia school system, provides a glimpse into just how varied the job has become.

The pillar of papers on her desk includes a plan for an upcoming crisis-intervention workshop with a new emphasis on terrorism, a guide to integrating the concept of tolerance into curricula, and assessment tests for graduating seniors. There is also a study of shifting demographics and social needs in her school district, which serves a growing number of Hispanic children who do not speak English as their first language.

“Umm, umm, umm,” she clucks, looking at the clutter. Yet she seems oddly serene amid the flurry of projects, and she flits, hummingbirdlike, from one stack of papers to another to her computer, swaying to the beat of an easy- listening song playing on her radio.

Today she’s writing to her crisis- intervention team, a cadre of 12 mental health professionals, 30 educators, and 27 community representatives such as parents and church leaders she can call on during emergencies. Crockett is sending them a master list of phone numbers because, she explains, “I’m trying to streamline the notification system so that the crisis isn’t over by the time the news travels down the chain of command.

“September 11 changed our entire approach to crisis management and also raised all of these issues about hating and bullying other students because of their origins,” Crockett explains. The evening of the terrorist attack, she worked until dawn drafting guidelines for educators to use in responding to students. Her plan cautioned against blaming groups for the actions of a few. She confides, “I do not like all this talk about profiling, which our [U.S.] attorney general seems to like so much, and I’m worried about the backlash against Arab American kids—or kids who just happen to look Arab American—in this country, where we operate on stereotypes of stereotypes.”

Another of Crockett’s priorities is the treatment of gay students. She’s worked for two years on the Tolerance Project, a comprehensive study of ways to foster empathy through coursework in history, literature, and social studies. “It’s hard to get it into an area like Fayette County, where so many people call themselves the ‘Christian Right’ but really are neither, and we cannot even say the word ‘homosexuality’ on school grounds,” she explains. “But we can find ways to teach kids that it’s wrong to hate and to bully by showing them the consequences of it, such as World War II, slavery, the Trail of Tears.”

Throughout the day, students and co-workers pop their heads in to gossip and commiserate. “Lady, is it time for your medication or mine?” Crockett deadpans to a receptionist as the afternoon wears on, and they double over laughing.

One of Crockett’s visitors is Keisha Witcher, an 18- year-old who drops by to chat. Such visits were once mandated for the student every week, when she began failing her classes because, she says, she “just did not care about anything.” Witcher credits Crockett’s direct style with helping her graduate on time and set a goal of becoming an occupational therapist. “She doesn’t tiptoe around things the way most teachers do,” she says. “She took me in as another mother and talked to me like I was her child, not holding anything back, telling me the consequences of what I was doing based on what she’d seen. For a while, ooh, I hated to see that woman coming, but now I think of her as my best friend. There’s just something about her that makes you have to listen to what she has to say.”

For Crockett, Witcher embodies the sort of flesh-and-blood victory that keeps the psychologist riding high amid her more bureaucratic duties. “I am so proud of that girl,” Crockett says. “She’s always been smart; she just wasn’t using it, had some adjustment issues. But now she’s graduating on time.”

Crockett, who grew up in a lower-middle- class African American family in Atlanta, says she chose her career out of anthropological curiosity: “I was always wondering what makes people who they are, what happens in their development to shape their lives.” She was also interested in righting wrongs—"any injustice, anywhere, hurts me,” she says— by helping the sad-eyed kids on the margins. “So when I came across a brochure for school psychology, it just fit.”

After earning her doctorate in the field from Georgia State University, she worked in several districts around her hometown. While Crockett, who was almost a math major, proudly admits that number-crunching the validity coefficients of test scores “gets my blood pumping,” she relishes the variety of her work. “This is the right job for someone who likes a lot of stimulation,” she notes. “I honestly don’t have a ‘typical’ day because you can’t predict what will happen next.”

‘Kids need adults who will speak frankly with them.’

Deborah Crockett

As dramatic as the terrorist threat may seem, Crockett considers the rash of school shootings in the 1990s to be the most profound crisis she’s dealt with on her watch. She says, “I think the cumulative effects of those got to me even more than 9/11 because of the loss of innocence—seeing all of these children lose their sense of security in a place that’s supposed to be safe for them.” After counseling the survivors of a shooting at Woodson Middle School in New Orleans in 2000, Crockett was overwhelmed with emotion during the plane trip back to Atlanta. “My adrenaline had been pumping for 72 hours, and I just lost it,"she recalls. “So we have to think about debriefing for the mental health workers in these situations, too.”

This kind of pressure is one of several factors that deter people from becoming school psychologists. The qualifications required— most states want a three-year master’s degree—are the highest in K-12 education. Yet pay is low. Although they vary, salaries usually hover between $30,000 and $55,000—significantly less than psychologists earn in private practices.

The NASP is taking several steps to recruit more people into the profession, including expanding opportunities for re-specialization, which enable teachers to take additional coursework to become school psychologists. The organization is also encouraging retirees to remain active in the profession, possibly as consultants and mentors.

As for Crockett, she can’t imagine doing anything else.

“This is where the kids are,” she says, “where decisions really impact the future. It’s not for people who want quick fixes, [but] you get to see so many wonderful things come to fruition as a result of building relationships with kids and adults. It’s exciting to see a kid get on a good road.”

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