The school district sounded the alarm last spring. There had been a disturbing uptick in the number of Davis students requiring suicide risk assessment interviews.
In greater numbers then ever before, students were landing in counselors’ offices at school, seeking help on their own or having been referred by teachers, parents or friends for something they’d said or posted on the Internet or even, sometimes, because they had already tried to hurt themselves.
What followed each time was a scripted and time-consuming process — the risk assessment interview — to gauge what the student needed and where that help should come from. Parents needed to be contacted and if the student appeared to be in imminent danger, the police as well.
In a presentation to the school board last spring, district crisis counselor Jen McNeil reported an 81 percent increase in suicide risk assessment interviews over the past two years, with the district averaging more than one interview per school day by the end of last year.
Sophomores accounted for the highest numbers — 28 percent of all of assessments — McNeil reported, followed by 12th-graders and ninth-graders accounting for about 20 percent each.
School board member Nancy Peterson called the numbers “staggering.” Colleague Gina Daleiden noted that “this touches every student on campus, potentially.”
“It’s not just the student at risk,” she said. “They are (all) at risk by having students at risk.”
So far this school year, there doesn’t appear to have been any let-up at Davis High School.
At their meeting earlier this month, PTA members at the school were told that counselors had already conducted four suicide risk assessment interviews in just the first two weeks of classes. There have been several more since then.
Counselors are also dealing with multiple cases of drug and alcohol use by students as well as the fallout from the Daniel Marsh case.
Marsh, who was a sophomore at DHS last year, is charged with murdering Davis residents Claudia Maupin and Oliver Northup, and counselors at the school have been helping students deal with the emotional impact of that news.
All of this comes during what is already the beginning of a very busy time for counselors: helping seniors apply to college.
Davis High School is unique in the region, with one of the highest percentages of seniors filling out the Common Application, an online form used by hundreds of mostly private colleges and universities. The Common App requires a secondary school report to be filled out by a school counselor and the most time-consuming part of that report — which counselors say takes three to five hours per student — is the counselor’s personal letter of recommendation.
It is a letter that carries considerable weight, the counselors say, and can make the difference in whether a student is accepted to a particular college or not.
It’s when they explain why, perhaps, a student’s grades dropped briefly, or what makes a student stand out in a sea of accomplished peers.
Last year, 59 percent of seniors requested letters of recommendation from counselors — a significantly higher percentage than most other schools in the region, where 10 to 30 percent of seniors generally request counselor recommendations.
According to numbers provided by the Davis High counseling department, St. Francis High School in Sacramento may be the only high school in the area where a higher percentage of seniors request counselor recommendations.
But St. Francis also has much smaller counseling caseloads — 250 students per counselor — than does Davis High, and St. Francis also has two additional college counselors who write all those letters, according to DHS counselors.
Davis High, meanwhile, has a student-per-counselor caseload of 375-to-1, according to the department.
That number is higher than the numbers Assistant Superintendent Matt Best provided to the school board last week — 344-to-1 — because it accounts for the smaller caseload assigned to head counselor Courtenay Tessler, who handles a number of administrative duties as well.
In determining caseload, Best told board members the district simply divides the number of students by the number of counseling FTE (full-time-equivalent hours), leaving the assignment of administrative duties to each school site.
In any case, using either set of numbers, one fact remains the same: Counseling caseloads at Davis High are up this year because of the loss of one counselor.
Teresa Anderson was laid off in August, and her 0.6 FTE was shifted to the junior high schools to help alleviate what had been extremely high caseloads on those campuses.
And while school board member Sheila Allen reported receiving positive feedback where caseloads have gone down, counselors at Davis High are feeling the crunch, now that their caseloads have increased by 55 students per counselor, including 25 more seniors each.
Last year, with that additional counselor on staff, counselors reported having to frequently work on letters of recommendation on weekends in order to keep up.
In a report sent to Best and Superintendent Winfred Roberson last week, counselors said, “We are being asked to choose between our at-risk and our high-achieving students. We are concerned we are not able to adequately serve the demands of these two populations.”
They have asked for an additional 1.0 FTE to meet the demand, and are in ongoing discussions with the district.
Meanwhile, board members reported receiving positive comments from junior high sites where additional counseling FTE has reduced caseloads. Best said Holmes received an additional 0.5 FTE, reducing caseloads from 480 students per counselor last year to 370 per counselor this year. Similarly, caseloads at Harper dropped from 437 to 364 and at Emerson from 430 to 383.
However, with the junior high schools as well, numbers may be in the eye of the beholder.
Emerson counselor Michael Leahy said in an email that the district’s ratio for Emerson of 383 students per counselor does not tell the whole story since Leahy is the only counselor at a school serving 460 students. But because he is being paid the equivalent of 1.2 FTE, and the district computes caseload by dividing student population by counseling FTE, the caseload appears smaller.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy