More Youth Workers Pitch Soars From Cop’s Lips to Clinton’s List. Now What?

Patrick Boyle
November 1, 1998

Minneapolis Police Chief Robert K. Olson admits that his grand idea at the National Summit on School Violence was something “I just took out of the air”: What if the nation put 100,000 youth workers in the schools to help troubled kids before they really hurt someone?

Attorney General Janet Reno, who attended the September summit in Salt Lake City, praised the concept. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the summit organizer, made the proposal for “100,000 youth workers or counselors” the second item on its school violence “action plan.” And when President Bill Clinton unveiled a plan at the White House Conference on School Violence last month to hire 100,000 more teachers, Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini told him in front of 200 school and youth work leaders that adding teachers is great, but “what about 100,000 counselors? We need counselors back in our schools.”

“I applaud the recommendation of the mayors,” the president responded, “and look forward to following up on that.”

Thus in three weeks the idea to put more youth workers and counselors in schools went from a cop’s head to the president’s. “We’re going to go after it in next year’s budget,” Conference of Mayors President Corradini later vowed on the White House lawn. While youth advocates have been calling for more youth workers in schools for years, recent events have propelled the idea to the national agenda.

Still uncertain, however, is what the mayors will go for, much less get: Counselors? Psychologists? Social workers? Other types of youth workers? While the White House conference illuminated a growing consensus over the need to get more adults working with at-risk kids before they explode, there is no consensus on how to make that happen in schools. Current efforts are piecemeal.

“When you see a kid that’s troubled, you know it,” Kevin Dwyer, president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists, told a morning workshop at the conference. The trouble is that “we always wait for the big bang” before intervening.

Need for Prevention

Clinton announced several initiatives that go in the prevention direction, such as $25 million for a Safe Schools-Safe Communities program to help 10 as yet unchosen cities create safety plans that include mental health counselors, mentoring and after school activities. The president’s plan to revamp the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program mentions evaluating and counseling troubled youths.

His two biggest announcements, however, were budget agreements to add 100,000 teachers and 2,000 cops to schools over several years. West Virginia Education Association president, Tom Lange, sitting in the White House East Room listening to the president, pointed out that smaller classes (the result of hiring more teachers) can help teachers identify troubled kids. And the White House said the police should help schools recognize signs of trouble and intervene before violence erupts or gets out of hand.

But what teachers really need, said Lange and others, is somewhere to send the kids who appear to be simmering. “One of our biggest problems is not identifying the high-risk behavior, but to have programs for early intervention,” Miriana R. Gaston, director of the Resolving Conflicts Creatively Program in New York City schools, told a morning workshop.

This concern was evident at the highest levels of the Clinton administration, from Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary, Margaret Hamburg (Teachers “don’t know what to do” when they see signs of trouble in a student), to Education Secretary Richard W. Riley (“Teachers need to have an opportunity, if they have a serious problem, to pull in a professional to give them more help”), to Reno (“We’ve got to have the resources to provide the follow-up after the police officers identify a problem”). First Lady Hillary Clinton bemoaned that the numbers of counselors in schools is typically so small that “it’s a meaningless, kind of a token presence.” She noted that in several of the high-profile school shooting cases this year, “a lot of these young boys had made threats, talked about getting even with people.”

Intuition and anecdotal evidence indicate that more youth counselors would help, but the research on the effect of counseling in schools is thin. The D.C.-based Fight Crime: Invest in Kids cites a 1991 Montreal study showing that counseling and social skills training for disruptive first- and second-grade boys cut in half the odds that they would be rated as highly disruptive by a teacher, have to repeat a grade, or be in special classes. Two days before the White House conference, Fight Crime unveiled a violence prevention program that includes early intervention for kids who show signs of trouble.

Stumbling Blocks

Despite the widespread support for early intervention, “there’s no national focus to make something happen,” Chief Olson noted in a telephone interview. That’s what prompted his proposal in Salt Lake City, spinning off the president’s popular program to hire 100,000 police. While the number catches attention (“It rings a bell here in Washington,” Corradini said), there’s no agreement at this early stage over what kind of workers are needed, or how many.

Olson said he originally suggested “youth workers,” but people at the mayors’ summit began saying “counselors” instead. The Conference of Mayors’ action plan that grew from that summit mentions “youth counselors” in one place and “youth workers or counselors” in another. “I’m not sure why ‘youth workers’ is in the report,” Corradini said after the White House conference. She said the mayors’ group wants certified counselors.

Dwyer noted that some people are using “counselor” to include anyone who counsels, while others (including him) mean licensed professionals. He said the discussion should include school psychologists and social workers as well. Others think the discussion should be even broader, to include an array of youth workers such as resource coordinators and volunteers.

“We need adults in the schools that are available to children,” said Linda Harnill, senior vice president of Communities in Schools, which helps to create youth-serving programs in schools throughout the country. “I would like to see it so that it is flexible for an individual school to determine what is the best position that they need.”

How many adults are needed? No one seems to know. Local school officials consistently said at the White House conference that they have fewer counselors than they once had or have not hired new ones as student populations have mushroomed. National statistics, however, are soft. Dwyer said the nation’s 26,000 school psychologists cover about 2,100 students apiece, twice the recommended ratio. There is no total count on the number of counselors; he said the average ratio is about 1:500, while the recommended ratio is 1:300.

“Most school psychologists and counselors in this country are serving twice as many kids as they’re supposed to,” Dwyer said.

Will Congress care about overworked counselors? It will if the public does, but that might be a hard sell. Tell a room full of American adults that you want to hire more cops or teachers, and most heads will nod on principle alone. Tell them you want to hire 100,000 youth workers or counselors, and you’ll face a lot of quizzical looks. “People have no concept of what we’re talking about,” Dwyer said.

That’s probably why President Clinton indicated that before he embraces any plan, the plan’s advocates have to build support among the public and lawmakers. “You need to let them know that a well-trained counselor working with kids is a terrific investment,” the president told Corradini.

She later said the mayors’ group will work with the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and law enforcement organizations, among others, to build support. Missing from that list are youth-serving groups such as Communities in Schools. “We need to offer our assistance,” Harnill said.

“We need a marketing campaign to show the role of counselors and youth workers, and how it will not only reduce school violence but also increase academics.”
Police and teachers’ groups might have the legislative clout to make the idea move. “The police, quite frankly, are tired of fighting this [juvenile violence] business from the spout of the fire hose,” Olson said. “Let’s get back to the spigot and turn this thing off.”


U.S. Conference of Mayors

1620 Eye St., NW

Washington, DC 20006

(202) 292-7330

Fax: (202) 293-2352

National Association of School Psychologists

4340 East West Hwy, Ste. 402

Bethesda, MD 20814

(301) 657-0270

Fax: (301) 657-0275

Boyle, Patrick. "‘More Youth Workers’ Pitch Soars From Cop’s Lips to Clinton’s List. Now What?." Youth Today, November 1998, p. 18 - 19.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.