WARNING: This blog post is longer than most, it details the experience of a UASP board member interacting with state representatives. If it gets too boring, I encourage you to scroll to the bottom for the TL,DR (“Too Long, Didn’t Read”) summary.
My name is Sterling Stauffer. In my role as a member of the legislative committee of the Utah Association of School Psychologists, one of my responsibilities is to work with legislators to advocate for the profession of school psychology, and the rights and welfare of children and youth. Over the past year, I’ve called, texted, emailed, and “Resist.bot’d” legislators mostly at the federal level, but also at the state level. I’ve done this largely in response to proposed legislation, or to express my thoughts on current events and indicate my opinion on a certain course of action. In general, I’ve received (what I suspect are) pre-written responses through email thanking me for contacting my representatives with links to their website so I can see their positions and encouragement for me to continue to contact them as issues arise. In a way it felt good to know that I had done something, but at the same time I wondered if any of my efforts really mattered. Two months ago, that all changed.
At the recommendation of another UASP board member, I decided to reach out to my local state representatives and request a meeting to discuss my concerns regarding the shortage of school-based mental health providers in Utah (the most recent data I have indicates 1 school psychologist for every 2,300 students) and share some ideas about possible solutions. I’ll admit that I honestly didn’t know who my state representatives were, so I went to the Utah State Legislative Maps website to find out. With my street address, zip code, and about 5 seconds of effort, I was able to find the legislators that represent me and their email and phone number. I decided to contact my state representative first (I really don’t know why, that’s just what I did).
I’m more of an email kind of guy, so I opened up my email and got to work. Because I’ve recently written about sample scripts for writing to legislators on the UASP blog, I had a pretty good place to start from. After introducing myself, my email looked something like this:
I'm writing to you because there is a critical shortage of school psychologists and school-based mental health professionals in Utah. The recommendation in our profession is a ratio of no more than 700 students per school psychologist. The most recent data available, however, indicates that there are nearly 2,300 students for every school psychologist in Utah - over 3x the recommended level.
I'm concerned for the students in our district, but also for students across the state, especially with the opioid crisis, and high rates of suicide.
I believe we need to attract and retain more school-based mental health professionals like school psychologists in Utah, and I have some ideas about what could be done to help.
I would love to meet with you if even briefly, to discuss my concerns for students in Utah and see what I and other concerned school psychologists can do to help support legislation or efforts to increase our state's ability to attract and retain important mental health providers in schools.
I was very happy to see that legislation was passed recently to help provide funds to districts to support student mental health, and I hope that these kinds of efforts will continue.
Thank you in advance for your time and interest. Please email or call me to let me know what time will work best for you.
And then I clicked “Send.”
In less than 24 hours, I received an email that was clearly not pre-written, with information about when he was available, and an invitation for us to meet in person and discuss my concerns.
We ended up talking for about 45 minutes on a Tuesday afternoon in his office (turns out he is a software developer) on a variety of topics from the difference between school counselors and school psychologists to how we could address shortages in school psychologists in the state. Though he has family in education, he admitted that he had no idea that school psychologists existed, or that it was any different from a school counselor.
In the end, he thanked me for bringing the issues to his awareness, and indicated that he would do his best to advocate for us where possible. He also gave me his cell phone number and encouraged me to text him if I knew of upcoming bills that would support our profession and the students we serve. He also mentioned that I should really meet with another legislator who lives in our county, but who is not my representative. He said he would contact this legislator and recommend that he meet with me.
I was hoping for more, but it was a good first step, and I was excited to see how the next meeting would go.
So I emailed the recommended legislator, and within a couple of hours, I received a phone call from him to setup a time to meet. He said that he was glad that I had reached out, as student mental health and education had been on his mind recently, and he was eager to hear my thoughts on how to better support students.
When I met him at his office, it was a little intimidating. He’s an attorney, and his office was . . . significantly better than mine. But the meeting went incredibly well. He was very personable, and asked me my thoughts on some very relevant issues. He also was not aware of a difference between school counselors and school psychologists, and was surprised to find that the school district had “in house” mental health specialists rather than just contracted from the local mental health agency.
I presented some ideas for legislative supports to help attract and retain good school psychologists in Utah. In particular, he wanted to make sure that school psychology students were eligible for the T.H. Bell, and look into getting school psychologists added to the Teacher Supplemental Salary Program.
Who knows what will come of these meetings. While they were very positive, I also know that there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to legislation. Regardless of what happens, I feel very satisfied about my efforts, and I encourage all school psychologists across the state to engage with your local legislators about important issues. If your experience is anything like mine, they will be happy to discuss your concerns and you will leave with a sense of satisfaction.
TL,DR - I met with two state representatives. They didn’t know that school psychologists existed or that they were any different from school counselors. They both asked good questions and promoted engaging conversation about how they can help support us as a profession, and more importantly student mental health needs. I am currently working with one representative on legislation to help attract and retain more qualified school psychologists in Utah. I think everyone should personally introduce themselves to their local legislators and start a conversation about how we better support Utah students.