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Texas will soon allow unlicensed chaplains to act as school counselors

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many school districts across the country are facing staffing challenges for teachers, school nurses and mental health counselors. To fill the gap, Texas passed a law that goes into effect tomorrow. It allows members of the clergy to volunteer or be hired as school counselors. Several religious groups oppose the move, saying chaplains lack the mental health and other training that's required. From member station KERA in Dallas, Bill Zeeble has our story.

BILL ZEEBLE, BYLINE: The new Texas law lets unlicensed chaplains act as school counselors as long as school boards approve it. The need has only gotten greater following the COVID-19 shutdowns. In Texas, there just aren't enough counselors. While the recommendation is for one counselor for every 250 students - that's according to the American School Counselor Association - in Texas, it's one for every 400 kids. Texas Representative Cole Hefner, a Republican, co-authored the bill.

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COLE HEFNER: I think we need to give our school districts every tool that we can in the toolbox with all that we've been experiencing with mental health issues and catastrophes and crises.

ZEEBLE: Texas school officials say they've seen a rise in depression, anxiety and overall stress in students. Chaplain Kathy Burden testified in favor of the bill earlier this year. The co-pastor of Kingdom Life Church in North Texas says clergy have the moral authority to help children in need.

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KATHY BURDEN: Why do we need chaplains in schools? We have a decline in moral values, and there are no absolutes anymore. We are dealing with traumatized students who have no access to crisis interventions.

ZEEBLE: Burden is also chief ministry officer with the International Fellowship of Chaplains.

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BURDEN: Chaplains are trained to deal with grief and loss, recognize students that are traumatized, help those that are depressed and also recognize addictions.

ZEEBLE: But Jill Adams, president of the Texas School Counselor Association, says that's not necessarily true. Chaplains may not have any mental health training. All the school counselors Adams leads have master's degrees in the field. They're licensed. They're certified. And she says they're trained in child development and counseling.

JILL ADAMS: Chaplains do not have any type of credential or certification that would give them the ability or capacity in a standardized way to say that they are qualified to support students' mental health needs.

ZEEBLE: Sheri Allen agrees. She's a cantor in Fort Worth synagogue Makom Shelanu.

SHERI ALLEN: As a chaplain myself, I oppose school districts employing chaplains in place of licensed school counselors. We are not qualified to do that kind of work. Under this new law, school districts could allow chaplains to serve as students' first point of contact for mental health support or suicide prevention. Chaplains are not trained to do that at all.

ZEEBLE: Allen was one of more than a hundred Texas clergy who signed a letter opposing chaplains serving as school counselors. She says chaplains are trained to offer religious and spiritual advice, and that does not belong in public schools. She's also concerned about LGBTQ students approaching a chaplain whose religion doesn't accept them. And she worries some chaplains might start proselytizing. Local school boards now have six months to vote on whether they want chaplains in their districts as counselors. For NPR News, I'm Bill Zeeble in Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues. Heâââ

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