Waco school officials are using a state law to stop private counselors from holding on-campus student mental-health sessions after administrators became concerned about constant interruptions during class time.

Officials began refusing private counselors access to students in November after the special education staff became concerned the district wasn’t fulfilling its state attendance requirements because children were continually being pulled from classes, said Dale Caffey, Waco Independent School District spokesman.

Superintendent Bonny Cain said school districts are not required to allow outside counselors on campuses “because they are supposed to be working with the family and not with the school.”

But Shelley Cano, a local licensed professional counselor who previously worked on Waco ISD campuses, said because school officials are preventing on-campus visits, they are depriving students from much-needed emotional support. Cano said often parents can’t or won’t take the children to counseling outside of school hours.

“Certain situations, especially kids (in the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services system) or kids that are in the juvenile justice system, their parents are hit-or-miss anyway. They’re not very good about taking them to their doctors appointments,” Cano said. “Out of all the kids that I was seeing weekly, I’ve only had one parent bring a child one time.”

The students still have access to district counselors, although one provider questions whether WISD has enough to serve all the children.

District officials say their hands are tied.

Gigi Maez and Laura Rodriguez McLean, Dallas attorneys who spoke on behalf of the district, cited state law which dictates that students ages 6 to 18 are required to attend a public school for the entire day unless given an exemption, which could include enrollment in a private school, a special education program or long-term medical leave.

Temporary exemptions, in which students return to school the same day, include religious holidays, court appearances or one-time health care appointments.

Maez and McLean say a weekly, recurring mental-health appointment isn’t a “temporary” exemption and thus doesn’t fall within the excusable absences allowed by the district.

But that same law provides flexibility for administrators by saying students can be exempted for “any cause acceptable to the teacher, principal or superintendent of the school.”

Cain responded to a letter from the Heart of Texas Counseling Association in late January and confirmed the district would refuse the counseling absences because principals and teachers reported that counselors would arrive unannounced and remove students from core classes, such as math or reading.

Juvenile probation officers, case workers and social workers often come to campuses, but are normally respectful of the child’s learning schedule, Cain said. Some private counselors show the same courtesy, but others don’t, she said.

“It just kind of got out of hand. . . . We don’t know who all these people are, who they represent,” Cain said. “A CPS person has a badge. A police officer has a badge. Juvenile probation officers have identification, but (counselors) don’t.”

The private counselors are paid by the state to see students who are on juvenile probation or in the family services system. Pinpointing how many students were receiving on-campus private counseling is difficult.

Counseling records

Caffey said the district doesn’t have records of who was receiving state-provided private counseling, because it is the parents’ responsibility to see that the student meets state-ordered requirements.

Shelly Rogers-Sharer, president-elect of the Heart of Texas Counseling Association, said she knew of at least six counselors refused access to campuses, but didn’t know how many students were being served. Rogers- Sharer attended the March 26 WISD board of trustees meeting to object to the administration’s ban and ask officials to reconsider.

Cano said she met with at least 12 students during school hours per week, pulling them out of classes for about 40 minutes for each session of court- or state- ordered counseling.

Cano said she always made sure to fluctuate her schedule so the students never were taken out of the same class more than once a month and she ensured it was never a class in which the student struggled.

“These children — kids I’ve been seeing for a year and a half — I may be the only constant person in their life that sits there with them an hour a week and just talks with them,” she said.

“They probably think I’ve abandoned them, too. Just like their parents have or other people in their lives. That’s the bad part. That’s the part that’s heartbreaking for me. I don’t want to be another bad guy. I want to be a good guy in their lives.”

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