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All Denton County school districts reject hiring chaplains as school counselors

A kindergarten classroom is shown on the first day of school at Sanchez Elementary School in Austin in 2021.
Jordan Vonderhaar
For KUT News
A kindergarten classroom is shown on the first day of school at Sanchez Elementary School in Austin in 2021.

All Denton County schools have rejected allowing chaplains to serve on campus in response to a law passed last year stating Texas schools can use safety funds to hire them as counselors.

School boards were required to vote on the proposal by March 1. Critics of the law said many chaplains are not trained counselors and could subject students to unwelcomed proselytizing.

The law allows Texas schools the option to hire unlicensed chaplains to work in mental health roles, but many parents and religious leaders — including 100 Texas chaplains who signed a letter of opposition — called the law a violation of the separation of church and state.

By the deadline, every school board in Denton County had voted no. Some, like Ponder and Krum ISDs, specified in their votes that chaplains are welcome to volunteer, just like any other members of the community.

“An individual who is a chaplain would still be eligible for hire if they meet the same requirements and credentials that the district has set forth for a position and they are deemed the best candidate,” the Ponder school board said in a statement.

Likewise, Denton ISD and Lake Dallas ISD stated they did not plan to hire chaplains anytime soon.

Lake Dallas ISD urged Texas, instead of chaplain programs, to “provide support and funding for trained counselors in schools to lower state ratios and provide additional mental health services statewide.”

Advocates of the law, like the National School Chaplain Association, claim that having chaplains in schools would help prevent suicide and other mental health crises among youths.

“Chaplains exist at the complex intersection of spirituality and mental health, where the line between a spiritual crisis and a mental health crisis is not always clear even to the person experiencing it,” the association said.

The organization believes that having chaplains in schools could improve the lives “of students, staff, educators and communities through increased school safety, better teacher retention and enhanced mental health support.”

Nik Nartowicz, a policy counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the mental health and well-being of students is a valid concern, but the way Texas addressed it is wrong.

“If legislators are concerned, then they should focus on employing more school counselors who are professionals, certified to work with students,” Nartowicz said.

“The U.S. Constitution protects the rights of students to attend school free from religious coercion,” Nartowicz said. “So allowing chaplains in public schools, as either official volunteers or employees, just increases the risk that those chaplains will proselytize to students or pressure them to participate in religious activities.”

As for the future, most Texas schools will not have chaplains in them any time soon. The 25 largest school districts in the state all declined to hire chaplains.