SALT LAKE CITY — The House Education Committee endorsed legislation Monday that would authorize the Utah State Board of Education to award matching grants to increase numbers of counselors in Utah elementary schools.
Rep Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, sponsor of HB264, noted Utah's growing rates of suicide among youths ages 10 to 17. The youngest child to end their life last year was 11 years old, he said.
"I think starting a little earlier in elementary school (providing more counselors) is key to getting ahead of this situation," Eliason said.
While audience members supporting the bill outnumbered those in opposition, some questioned why some schools have counselors in elementary schools and others elect not to.
Joan Landes, a clinical mental health counselor, said she formerly worked in schools but felt that intervening on behalf of a child could drive a wedge between the child and his or her family.
Landes encouraged the committee to instead fund vouchers to allow students and their families to seek mental health services from private providers or to refer them to online resources families can use to help children with issues such managing anxiety or building coping skills.
Community advocate Pamela Atkinson said she recently asked delinquent youths to help her understand what could have made a positive difference in their lives.
The difference maker, she said, was a trusted adult taking an interest in them when they were acting out in elementary school or middle school.
HB264 "falls into a prevention category of many problems we're seeing in society," she said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said the legislation does not create a new program but seeks to expand numbers of school counselors in elementary schools. It is a priority of the State School Board, she said.
School counselors work with teachers to come up with positive behavior supports for students who are struggling with behavioral issues or anxiety.
"That is not new. That's happening now," she said.
But as Dickson visited schools across the state this fall during her "listening tour," educators throughout Utah remarked on the need for more counseling support in schools.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said school counselors delving into more therapeutic roles could be problematic, noting things could get "weird" and "deep" fast.1 comment on this story
Eliason amended the bill to allay concerns that school counselors would maintain a proper scope in their work and help families that need and want outside help find community referrals.
The committee adopted an amendment that requires the State School Board to provide training that instructs educators on the impact of trauma on student learning, "including information advising educators against practicing medicine, giving a diagnosis, or providing treatment."
Eliason said the bill would compete for funding but there should be more revenue to work with this year than last year.