Education News

Katy ISD considers hiring chaplains at schools as part of new state law

Several community members, including mental health professionals, spoke out in opposition to the measure at the Katy ISD board meeting Monday.

Katy ISD Bond Board Meeting
Katy ISD
A community member speaks in favor of a proposed $840.6 million bond package at the Katy ISD school board meeting on Monday, July 31, 2023.

Katy ISD is considering allowing religious chaplains to serve as counselors in schools, after the state legislature passed a bill permitting it in this year's legislative session. Local opponents say they believe the measure will not only harm students but also violate their constitutional rights.

Per the recently passed Senate Bill 763, every school district in the state is required to vote whether to permit the use of chaplains as mental health counselors in schools by March 2024. Districts who approve the measure can pay chaplains using funds allocated for school safety as well as use volunteer chaplains. The law, however, does not impose any licensure or accreditation requirements, unlike those which exist for chaplains who work in prisons or the U.S. military.

Several school districts in Texas have rejected SB 763 so far, including Dallas ISD, Austin ISD and Kerrville ISD. Meanwhile, districts such as Round Rock ISD, Mineola ISD and Georgetown ISD have voted in favor of resolutions allowing chaplains in schools.

Opponents say allowing religious chaplains to work in public schools blurs the separation of church and state.

"Subjecting my children to religious indoctrination while they are at public school is a breach of my parental rights to decide when, where and how my children are exposed to religious ideology," said Lisa Lister-Browne, a parent of student in Katy ISD, at Monday's board meeting. "If I want my children to receive religious indoctrination at school, I will send them to a private school that aligns with my religion."

Perhaps the most heavily criticized portion of the law is its lack of licensing or accreditation requirements for school chaplains.

"It's just hugely problematic," said Anne Russey, a licensed professional counselor and parent of two children in Katy ISD. "Licensed professional counselors are required to abide by certain ethics and state laws and go through graduate programs and put in a ton of time in internships to earn our full licenses, and I know it's very similar for school counselors. The bill doesn't spell out any specific requirements for chaplains, so that opens the door for people who are unqualified to treat mental health conditions or intervene if a mental health issue arises, which could cause lots of issues for students."

Katy ISD's board has recently come under fire for its ramping up of book removals in its campuses over the past year, which has disproportionately targeted books with LGBTQ characters and themes. In August, the board passed a policy requiring teachers to notify parents if a student comes out as transgender or requests to use different pronouns. Jarred Burton, a junior at Tompkins High School in Katy ISD and member of his school's Sexuality and Gender Alliance, said he believes allowing chaplains in schools would further marginalize LGBTQ students in the district.

"Although the board is required to vote on it, I still think this is very connected to the gender policy that passed," said Burton. "First, you take away the rights of queer students and put them in danger and then you're debating putting unlicensed, unqualified chaplains to replace mental health professionals in your

schools. I think it's just part of their bigger objective of trying to inhibit trans and queer existence in schools."

Katy ISD is considering two main options for how to proceed: it can reject the bill and stick with the current policies, including allowing religious professionals to volunteer in the same capacities as other community members, or make a resolution to allow chaplains to be hired or to volunteer in a counseling capacity in Katy ISD schools. Chaplains could be of any faith, and if the board elects to employ chaplains, it cannot legally make hiring decisions based on an applicant's religion.

The board itself is divided.

"The law includes no requirements for a counselor to refrain from proselytizing, which is of concern to me," said board member Rebecca Fox.

In fact, the state legislature explicitly rejected a proposed amendment to SB 763 to prohibit school chaplains from proselytizing to students.

"This is for parents to teach in the home," said Fox. "Religious guidance should come from the parents at home, not in schools."

The bill does not specify that chaplains would be meant to replace mental health counselors, and several board members expressed interest in bringing in chaplains to supplement support from school counselors rather than supplant them.

Board member Amy Thieme, a former teacher, referenced an incident in which she was tasked with helping a student through a mental health crisis and said she would have appreciated having a chaplain available. She said she doubted chaplains would try to evangelize to students in such instances.

"We never talked about anything religious. We just talked about how to make a good decision in a hard situation," said Thieme. "Let's continue to meet the needs of students that are maybe having suicidal issues, or whatever, and give the teachers an avenue to suggest they go to instead of the teacher themselves."

However, the bill's opponents — including many chaplains themselves — say chaplains would not have the training to deal with mental health crises. In August, over 100 Texas chaplains signed a letter in opposition to SB 763, calling it "harmful to public schools."

Dr. Nancy Zarse is a forensic psychologist and expert in violence risk assessment who attended Monday's meeting. She said chaplains are not trained mental health professionals and should not be utilized as such in schools.

"Chaplains are faith-based professionals. The whole purpose of a chaplain is faith and spirituality. They are not trained in mental health or behavioral health, in violence risk assessment, in suicide prevention," said Zarse. "To suggest that it's kind of close is totally insulting to qualified, trained, educated and licensed mental health professionals."

The Katy ISD board has not drafted a chaplain policy and is not expected to vote on the measure until January or February.