ORANGE — For the last six years, October has signaled the time when workers from local nonprofit agencies would begin counseling students in the Orange Unified School District about emotional troubles, substance abuse and other problems.
But this year, in keeping with the school board majority's philosophy that such counseling is beyond the realm of public education, contracts with three agencies have not been renewed. Counselors who used to see hundreds of students at 30 of the district's 37 schools will not be available on school sites.
"You only have so many hours in the academic day," Trustee Bill Lewis said. "Why do we have to step into the middle of every social problem that's going on? Why do the schools want to take it upon themselves to get involved in psychological counseling and medical care and all these things it was never intended to do?"
Jeannie Fowler, a resident who volunteers to teach Orange students about the dangers of smoking, said the answer to those questions is urgency. She frequently has referred children who seemed to be troubled or using alcohol or drugs to the counseling interns from Mariposa, Straight Talk and Turning Point programs, all nonprofit family counseling agencies.
"These programs help the youth at the moment" the problems occur, Fowler said. "Parents are suddenly facing the reality that their child's health is in jeopardy. If intervention doesn't happen right away, then denial sets in, and that prolongs the problem. . . . We need a resource, and these are our resources."
Fowler will join parents, residents and counselors who plan to speak at a school board meeting tonight to ask the trustees to reinstate the contracts with the agencies. But they are not likely to change any minds.
The issue is the latest in a long-running philosophical debate between the four trustees who form a conservative majority of the seven-member school board and activists, parents and some administrators and teachers over how to deal with social problems that disrupt the classroom.
The issue reached a head last spring when the board majority realized that Lampson Elementary School, which serves a low-income neighborhood in Garden Grove, was offering extensive social and medical programs to students. The four trustees contended those responsibilities primarily belonged to parents and not schools.
Board members determined to scrutinize every grant coming into the district to make sure it was serving strictly academic purposes. Over the summer, board members said that they would not support continued counseling grants at Lampson.
Given that, school district administrators decided to not submit the agency contracts for approval by the board.
"After they opposed that, there haven't been any more items of that nature going to the board," Assistant Supt. Neil McKinnon said.
The counseling provided by the agencies under the state-funded DATE program (Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Education) was being offered at schools throughout the district, and parents were required to give permission before students could attend the sessions.
Although the schools still offer extensive programs having to do with drug and tobacco resistance and learning to control emotions, the absence of one-on-one and group counseling will leave something of a void, according to Andrew Fisher, the district's DATE coordinator and principal of Panorama Elementary School.
"We like to offer as many services to kids as possible," Fisher said. "It's a program the schools greatly appreciated, and they are disappointed they can no longer offer it to students."
The district still has a core group of administrators on campuses who review cases when students display signs of trouble. These signs can include acting out in class, a sudden drop in grades or the onset of dark moods. Sometimes these can reflect serious concerns, such as a divorce or death in the family, or they can be as simple as an unrequited crush. The administrators still can refer the students to an outside agency for help. "They're just not happening on campus," Fisher said.
Mary Greenberg, the clinical director for the Santa Ana-based Turning Point Center for Families, said the board's decision will put the burden of coping with family and social problems on school employees.
"The teachers in the district are so dismayed, because now they have to deal with everything themselves," without an on-campus counselor to turn to, she said. "It's a big, big loss. It's very sad."
But board members also said they were concerned with the district's liability.
"The problem I have is supervision of these interns," Lewis said, referring to the counselors who usually are graduate students. "The [sessions] are held in private and they're confidential and that's fine. . . . But we don't know what is said and we don't have any control and these people don't work for us. It's like having kids in your house. If something goes wrong, you're responsible."