A School Counselor in Every School

Paul De Sena is a professor of counselor education and was chairperson of the Department of Education for eight years, co-director of the School Psychology program for six years and director of Counselor Education for 37 years. He has served on many professional boards, and he is a consultant to several school districts in the Los Angeles area. In 2013 De Sena was inducted into Stanford’s H.B. McDaniel Hall of Fame, which recognizes those who have made significant contributions to the counseling profession. In May, he was named the recipient of the 2014 Loyola Marymount University Rains Award for Excellence in Service. He was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

What skills or abilities can school counselors provide that no other professional in the school setting can offer?
Counselors are the primary human development experts in schools. The important thing counselors are able to give students is nurturing. Students at all levels need someone who listens to their concerns, understands their concerns, accepts them because of their concerns, and guides them to help them resolve their concerns. We need that nurturing in the schools, because connected to bullying, drug use, gang problems and violence is a lack of people that students can go to who will hear and understand them. It’s important to deal with the social and emotional aspects of children if we’re going to make them receptive to the academic work in schools. Middle school and high school students all carry with them a great deal of social and emotional turmoil simply because of the adjustments they have to make. There are tremendous stresses at that age, beginning in middle school.

How are school counselors funded?
They’re mostly funded by school districts. Also, the federal Elementary and Secondary School Education Act provides funding, and schools can use it for counselors. There should be a counselor in every school, but one of the tragedies is that the counselor’s post is one of the first positions to get cut when there are budget constraints. School counseling is an indispensable necessity in the schools that is made dispensable. Things have gotten better recently in the state of California. Schools are beginning to hire school counselors again. We’re hearing that many of our graduates are getting counseling jobs.

What is the ratio of counselors to students in California?
The ratio in California is the worst of all the 50 states: one counselor for every 1,500 students. There just isn’t enough time to help that person in crisis without neglecting the other 1,400-some students. The recommended ratio is one counselor to every 250 students. There is no state worse than California.

How broad is the typical training of a school counselor today? Does it include mental health competencies, teaching abilities, and career and college counseling skills, for example?
Counseling is a jack-of-all-trades profession, and master of one. The one is counseling. The training is broad: Counseling students are going to learn about assessment, groups, curriculum, human development, and career and educational planning. But the focus is on counseling: the ability to gather information and relate to students.

Do incidents of violence in schools or natural disasters affect the way people view the importance of school counselors?
When a crisis happens, we recognize that we need counselors. However, that sense of need dissipates until the next incident occurs.

What do you see as LMU’s strength when it comes to preparing school counselors?
LMU has one of the largest counseling programs in the state. We have more than 200 students in our school counseling and mental health program. Yet we continue to have small classes. We also have a very diverse population in our school counseling program. We’re big, we have enormous quality, we have national accreditation and our reputation for the past 50 years has been superb. Also, our faculty work in the schools. It’s not enough to just talk about the schools. We work with students and do counseling in schools. I’ve been doing it for the past 40 years.