Chaplains in public schools? What’s behind a new push

Lawmakers proposing the bills are pointing to counselor shortages but are not completely playing down the religious aspects of putting chaplains in schools.

A push to have chaplains serve as counselors in public schools is underway in several states as the mental health crisis among K12 students persists.

Lawmakers who have proposed the bills are not completely playing down the religious aspects of putting chaplains in schools and are also pointing to counselor shortages and the surging student need for a “safe place to talk,” according to one proponent in Utah.

Opponents across the country have raised concerns about chaplains offering religious guidance and that most of the bills don’t require the chaplains to have any training in school social work or earn any K12 credentials.

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In recent weeks, proposals have surfaced in Kansas and Utah. “In this era of conflict, discord and loneliness, the role of chaplain has never been more critical,” State Rep. Bill Rhiley, a Republican, told the Kansas Reflector. “Chaplains will be in schools as a moral compass and a moral spiritual guide.”

Utah’s bill would let chaplains provide counseling as long as students or employees are not required or “coerced” into participating.  Still, the state ACLU is warning the proposal violates the state’s Constitution and the separation of church and state.

“Chaplains have no place in public schools and their presence will inevitably lead to unconstitutional religious coercion and promotion of religion in school settings.  We recognize that student participation in chaplain services must be voluntary under this bill, but allowing chaplains to serve in official positions in schools creates an inherently coercive context for students regardless of the intent,” Ellie Menlove, the Utah ACLU’s legislative and policy counsel, testified at a hearing on the bill.

There is about one counselor for every 385 students in U.S. schools, figures that are significantly above the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation. The organization suggests a ratio of 1-to-250.

Why chaplains?

The push started last spring in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill allowing chaplains to serve as school counselors. The new law, however, may not be having the impact its sponsors intended. The state’s largest districts, including Houston ISD, Dallas ISD and San Antonio ISD, have officially rejected the idea, according to Texas AFT.

The dissenting districts’ school boards have voted to maintain existing volunteer policies, which allow chaplains to participate in school activities but not take the place of licensed counselors.

Earlier this month, Florida’s legislature passed a bill that would allow chaplains to volunteer in public and charter schools as early as this summer. Schools would have to get written consent from parents before a student can interact with a chaplain and districts would be required to post information about the chaplains’ duties on their websites.

Nebraska’s bill would allow schools to hire chaplains “to perform the duties of a school counselor” without earning any certification from the state. Doug Houseman, a school counselor and executive director for the Nebraska School Counseling Association, pointed out to KMTV 3 News Now that the position requires a Master’s degree and state certification.

Similar measure are being debated in Georgia and Iowa but a chaplain bill failed in Oklahoma earlier this month. One opponent, according to AOL News and The Oklahoman, was the Oklahoma Faith Network, which had expressed concerns about blurring the lines between church and state, not requiring chaplains to earn certifications and not expressly prohibiting religious proselytizing, the outlets reported.

An unexpected proponent, perhaps, was the Satanic Temple, which declared itself ready to send its chaplains into schools should Oklahoma ever permit chaplains, AOL added.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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