County looks to privatize school counseling program

By Darryl Patteson

Sheila Coughlin is not employed by Fayetteville-Manlius High School, but to the 40 to 50 students she sees as the schools Student Assistance Counselor, she's as much a part of the family as anyone else.

An employee of the county working in the school, Coughlin deals with issues such as suicide ideation and drug and alcohol abuse for the 1,600 students at F-M. Her services are readily available and confidential for the students.

"Youth in crisis can access mental health services without barriers," Coughlin said of the program that has been a part of Onondaga County schools since 1985.

However, the loss of six schools in the last seven years has caused Acting Commissioner of the Onondaga County Department of Mental Health Bob Long to call for privatization of the Student Assistance Counselor program. This move would lay-off the current employees while a not-for-profit agency assumes operation of the 13 student-assistance counselors.

"We're not disputing that it's a quality program," Long said. "We're not disputing that it's a needed program. The bottom line is that if we continue to lose schools, it's not going to work. Taxpayers will not be getting value for their money."

Dr. Melissa Luke, coordinator of Syracuse University's School Counseling Program, doesn't understand the need for a change in a program that helps adolescents, a group that she says gets 90 percent of mental health services through schools.

"If the county supports the program, why is it on the chopping block?" she said.

Luke also expressed concerns over monitoring the private company. Licensing and credentials are the only way to bring in quality, qualified counselors of any kind, she says.

Long argues, however, the program will not suffer as a result of the change.

"There's an implication that the agencies we're considering don't operate a quality program," Long said. "We monitor the quality of programs. It's part of our job. There's no reason to believe they would do a bad job."

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