Gun control, metal detectors and arming teachers.
These are the go-to topics after school shootings.
But a nationwide TEGNA investigation has found that there is something else much less controversial that is proven to help prevent violence in schools that gets too little attention.
We’re talking about school counselors. Or rather, the lack of them across the country.
FOR MORE ON OUR NATIONWIDE INVESTIGATION, click here.
According to 2015-2015 data, the latest from the Department of Education, one in five school districts in the United States don’t have any counselors at all.
In North Texas, that number is about one in eight districts.
That means 37,291 North Texas students are attending schools without a single counselor to help identify risky behavior.
Aaron Stark wishes a counselor would have intervened in his life.
“Every school I went to I had a new set of bullies,” he said. “I would come home and have giant bruises down my back from kids throwing giant baseballs and basketballs at me all day. Bullying was constant.”
Stark, now a father and husband, is fine now, but he wasn’t always. He said in the mid-90s in Colorado – long before Columbine – he longed to lash out.
“I was planning to do the most terrible thing in the world,” he said. “I had a plan to get a gun. I'd asked for one that would shoot as many bullets as possible. I had a plan go to in through the big glass doors of the school in the food court area and shoot as many people as I could right away. I wasn't planning to make it out.”
He said he tried getting help at school, but no counselors were available.
"If I would've had someone who would've listened to me, I would've ran in there and told them everything,” he said. “I never felt like I could be heard."
For many decades in Texas public schools, Diana Villarreal was that someone.
“His drawings were of guns and shooting people,” the retired counselor recalled about a trouble sophomore she worked with years ago.
“When we talked about it, he readily admitted that, yes, that's all he thought about,” she said. “He could hear people telling him he needed to shoot someone, and at that time, I knew he was being as honest as honest could be.”
According to the American School Counselors Association, 31 states require high schools to have counselors on campus.
Texas is not one of them.
“Every day that we don't offer these kids someone to talk to is another day that they are wallowing in their pain and possibly reaching that edge of violence,” Stark said.
That’s why the ASCA recommends a 1:250 counselor-to-student ratio in schools.
Most U.S. schools don’t meet that. More than 92 percent of North Texas schools have fewer counselors than recommended, according to the latest federal Education Department data.
Kathryn Everest is a veteran school counselor and currently the director of counseling services at Fort Worth ISD. She says districts across the state are “really missing the boat.”
She said the lack of counselors across the country is only half the problem.
The other half?
Current counselors in Texas schools are often overburdened with non-counseling duties.
“Playground duty, lab duty, hall duty,” she said. “That takes hours. And it takes away from being able to serve students.”
Last year, Frisco ISD took a hard look at how their counselors spend their time.
“What we found is that about a third of the counselor's school year was in non-counseling related activities,” said Dr. Stephanie Cook, Frisco ISD's director of guidance and counseling services.
If you don't have counselors on campus to monitor students social and emotional needs - then who is? said Independence High School’s counselor, Heather Mayfield.
This year, Frisco hired 38 new staff members to take on those non-counseling duties, and give counselors back time to spend one-on-one with students.
Gov. Greg Abbott lauded Frisco in his recent school safety action plan, which highlights the importance of school counselors and “emphasizes the need to prevent security threats in advance through early identification of students who are in crisis,” his report states.
The state education code says it’s primarily the school counselors’ job to do that.
“If I don't have time to listen to a student's story, to get help for the family if they need help, they get frustrated, they get angry at the school system, they feel like they don't matter,” Everest said. It’s those situations that can lead to violence, she said.
But after shootings in Santa Fe near Houston and Parkland, Fla., Everest said districts don’t rush to hire counselors. Instead, she said, they fortify schools by adding metal detectors, security cameras and stronger doors.
“No school fortification, no extra cameras, no security doors, none of that would've done anything except alter the plan,” Stark said.
“If you have nothing to live for and nothing to lose, you can do anything. And that is terrifying. We need to let [troubled students] see that they do have things to lose. There is a world out there that is good. And there is a way out of that darkness.”
Ultimately, Stark saw his way out of that darkness. He didn’t follow through with his plan.
“Kindness,” he said. “I had a friend who treated me like a human.”
“If you treat someone like a person when they don't even feel like a human,” he said, “it will change their entire world.”
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