Cy-Fair ISD parents uneasy about potential policy allowing chaplains to serve as school counselors

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Friday, February 9, 2024
Chaplains as school counselors? Why Cy-Fair ISD parents are against it
Senate Bill 763 would allow religious leaders and chaplains to become school counselors, but Cy-Fair ISD parents voiced their opposition on Thursday.

CYPRESS, Texas (KTRK) -- Parents in Cy-Fair Independent School District lined up during Thursday evening's board meeting to voice their concerns against Senate Bill 763, a law that passed during the 2023 Texas legislative session that requires all school districts to vote by March 1 on whether to allow religious leaders to be employed as school counselors.

Dr. Tara Cummings, a parent, told ABC13 she would be one of the people speaking during public comment. She is a licensed mental health clinician and a vocal opponent of SB-763.

"I'm very concerned. This law is dangerous," Cummings said. "School counselors are certified, trained, and qualified. They have a governing body where they can be reported and investigated if there are concerns that they are not competent or harming students. But there is no requirement in SB-763 for school chaplains, so there's no recourse."

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School counselors typically have to meet several qualifications, such as having a master's degree and at least two years of experience as a classroom teacher. But those specific qualifications wouldn't apply to chaplains under this policy.

Rev. Les Carpenter of St. Aidan's Episcopal Church in Cypress believes these two roles are not interchangeable.

"Therapy is an invaluable tool that allows people to process their experiences and identify strategies to cope. Pastoral care and soul care focus on something much deeper: the meaning, value, and purpose of life itself," Carpenter said. "My reasonable fear is that well-meaning people will end up accidentally doing damage because they don't understand the weight of what it is to carry this title."

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However, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, believes faith-based leaders have unique skills that make them good candidates for the position. He was one of the bill's co-authors and thinks this is one solution to alleviating the shortage of mental health professionals available to students across the state.

"This is about the mental health of students. What better pool of people can you get than chaplains? Chaplains are people with tremendous life experience and, in some cases, master's degrees in theology," Bettencourt said. "The importance is to make sure kids get help from trusted adults who can be a very positive influence on students during the school day."

Several other districts in the Greater Houston area have already voted against the policy. But Cummings believes Cy-Fair ISD will pass it. She worries that if the chaplain policy is enacted in their district, there won't be a separation between church and state.

"There's nothing in the law that prevents the chaplains from coming on campus and proselytizing. There's also nothing that prevents them from refusing to provide any service to a student based on the chaplain's own religious beliefs," she said. "This law violates parental rights. It prevents me from determining what kind of religious contact my child has in their school."

The law does prevent any chaplains who've been registered as sex offenders to be disqualified from employment. Still, Rev. Carpenter questions what additional checks and balances will go into vouching chaplains for counselor positions.

"I don't expect that our schools are ready for that kind of vetting. It takes one skill set to identify a wolf in sheep's clothing. It takes a completely different skill set to identify a wolf in shepherd's clothing," Carpenter said.

Cy-Fair ISD's Board of Trustees discussed the chaplain policy and took public comments during Thursday's meeting. The official vote will take place on Monday.

The district has declined the request for comment.

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