Preserve counselors who can prevent campus violence

Nicholas Prato, center, one victim of a shooting at Northern Arizona University, stands with fellow fraternity members during a walk Oct. 13 in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Nicholas Prato, center, one victim of a shooting at Northern Arizona University, stands with fellow fraternity members during a walk Oct. 13 in Flagstaff, Ariz. Arizona Daily Sun

The knife attacks at UC Merced, the shootings at colleges in Oregon and Arizona – senseless violence has happened too often on too many campuses. What makes it worse is that some, if not all, of these events were preventable. We desperately need to take action regarding mental health treatment on our campuses.

Our campuses used to be havens of safety, but sexual assaults have been on the rise. So have suicides and, increasingly, gun violence. On my campus, CSU Sacramento, we recently had a strength and conditioning coach commit suicide. Students are speaking out against sexual violence and against the intimidation of transgender students. Yet I’m afraid that with a record-breaking 30,000 students on campus, we are vulnerable to our own crisis.

We have a counseling center to help students, but precisely when we need to be engaged in deep discussion and preventive action, administrators are dismantling the faculty’s ability to prevent violence and suicide on campus.

I have been concerned about what is happening at the counseling center for almost 10 years. Between 2007 and 2011, there was 100 percent turnover when tenured and tenure-track faculty quit in protest over working conditions. In the name of “management flexibility” they were replaced with temporary counselors, who are paid less and have fewer rights.

Their lack of academic freedom became evident when half of the new counselors were fired after speaking their minds about conditions at the center. Some were certified to aid students through a suicide-prevention program. The loss of these counselors creates a significant gap in knowledge and skills on our campus.

This purge of experienced and dedicated counselors reduces our ability to counsel students at risk of suicide, to offer therapy to struggling families, to help students with Asperger’s syndrome and to counsel gay, lesbian and transgender students. The counseling center is losing decades of experience for the second time in less than 10 years, making the campus less safe for students, faculty and staff, as well as for the community we serve.

The national professional association of school counselors recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 1,500 students. At Sacramento State, the ratio was one for every 3,000 students even before half the counselors were dismissed.

Not all mass shootings are caused by mental instability, and not all will be prevented by robust counseling services on campuses. But we certainly can’t prevent a future tragedy by eliminating the dedicated counselors with the most experience.

If we are to avoid becoming the next Merced, Roseburg or Flagstaff, we must invest in permanent tenured counseling faculty who are free to advocate for the mental health needs of our campus and help build a safe environment for all 30,000 students.

Kevin Wehr is a sociology professor at California State University, Sacramento, and president of the Capitol chapter of the California Faculty Association.