School Replacing Counselors With Social Workers

In a confusing move, one school district has completely done away with school counselors, in favor of placing social workers inside schools.

By Erika Hanson | Published

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Student mental health is a major focus for school officials this year. There has been a growing concern for the well-being of America’s youth in recent years, and that regard was only exacerbated by the pandemic. As the crisis continues to grow, school districts are implementing new ways to foster health and happiness in students. One school district, however, is facing backlash for their shocking manner to address the issue, as they do away with all school counselors in favor of putting social workers inside schools.

The notion to place social workers in school buildings is growing in popularity, especially in California where the Saugus Union School District recently did away with all counselors in favor of replacing them with social workers. But most of the districts placing them inside schools are doing so via a joint effort that allows both professionals to work together. When Saugus officials revealed this new and unusual approach, they cited their decision as a need following years of distress being placed on students.

The district, located in northern Los Angeles County, has indeed endured its fair share of anguish that has likely heightened anxiety, stress, and emotional disorders among its youth. At the beginning of the 2019 school year, before COVID wreaked havoc on schools, the Tick and Saddleridge fires affected the community, closing schools and forcing families to evacuate. The following month, a school shooting at the district’s high school left three students dead, including the gunman. And then COVID hit, and fierce political debates shattered the community. All of this led to the district’s decision to replace counselors with social workers, according to reports from  EdSource.

One of the newly appointed social workers cited the need for this change as she has witnessed an alarming epidemic among the students in the area. Tonya Nowakowski said that the new staff are seeing an increase in reported anxiety and depression, self-harm, eating disorders, suicidal tendencies, and inappropriate and disturbing behavior inside classrooms. District leaders feel that social workers are better trained to deal with the increase in these matters. More so, they feel social workers are better equipped with the skills needed to work directly with families to combat the issues.

The counselors are certainly not on board with the district’s decision to eliminate their positions in schools altogether. If anything, they believe the spike in mental health needs further conveys the demand for guidance counselors in schools. To exemplify this, one counselor pointed out how eliminating these positions could actually make the problem much worse. Many of these counselors have been through the thick of the turmoil the community has faced along with these students. They have spent the past few school years forming relationships with many of the students. But now, these children will no longer have those familiar faces to talk with and will be greeted instead by new coming social workers they might be less prone to open up to. 

The counselors aren’t alone in disagreeing with the district’s brash decision. A senior policy council member with ACLU resonated with the counselor’s statements. Amir Whitaker pointed out that social workers don’t necessarily specialize in addressing behavioral and mental health issues on a “campuswide level”, and he likewise feels that eliminating counselors altogether from these schools will only heighten the issue.

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Despite the possible need and benefits of placing social workers inside classrooms, the Saugus Union school district’s decision is confusing to many. Why they didn’t simply come up with a plan to conglomerate both social workers and school counselors alike is baffling many. Now, only time will tell whether or not this decision proves to be a useful endeavor or a possibly harmful move for students.