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A new Texas law allows schools to hire chaplains as counselors. So far, one school has opted into the program.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Last year, Texas passed a law allowing school districts to recruit chaplains using school safety funds. So far, only one school has employed a full-time religious mentor to counsel students, according to staffing data from the Texas Education Agency.

The largest 25 school districts in the state already rejected the legislation, which encompasses almost two million students and about a third of Texas public school students, according to tracking done by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

While Arlington ISD is on the list of districts that rejected the measure, the city’s public charter network Newman International Academy was the lone school district to hire a chaplain during the 2023-24 school year.

Newman International Academy staff said that Matthew Daniels rotates through its eight campuses as the network’s chaplain, but has previous experience as an educator. The website describes him as the District Family Engagement and Mentorship Coordinator.

The public charter school’s staff also said on Friday that they have recently hired additional part-time chaplains.

The Texas Legislature passed the law permitting unlicensed chaplains to be school counselors as part of its response to the May 2022 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. In total, the Texas Education Agency received over $1 billion to allocate to districts as school safety grants.

The policy does not specify what the chaplain’s role includes or any training and certification requirements — leaving that up to individual school boards to determine. This led to heated debates across the state with supporters believing the legislation addressed a shortage of mental health professionals for students, while critics of the law attacked the decision as trying to insert specific religions into schools.

The Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express- News reported that Newman has had a “history of toeing the line that separates religion from public schooling.” Established by a nonprofit with religious roots, the charter school network edited religious language out of its founding documents in order to comply with the separation of church and state.

Lawmakers gave the state’s 1,200-plus school districts the deadline of March 1 to decide whether it allowed employed or volunteer chaplains to act as school counselors. The Tribune has requested data from the TEA on how many districts opted into or out of the chaplain program.

Some school boards tried to defuse the politically charged vote by restricting clergy from mental health positions while clarifying they could still be involved in other ways like mentorship.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastri-bune. org/2024/04/05/texas- school-counselors-chaplains/. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune. org.

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