A Case Against School Chaplaincy: Part Two – Russian Roulette

Australia’s national school chaplaincy program was introduced by the Howard government in October 2006 and continued and expanded by the Rudd Government.  Provided at enormous cost to Australian tax-payers, the result is that over 2,000 state schools currently employ chaplains, providing the chaplains and their churches with direct exposure to approximately 720,000 children (Overington, 2008).

My first article in this series argued that it is a pointless exercise, for all concerned, to place evangelical Christians into schools and then tell them they can’t promote their theistic beliefs.  This article will deal with another misleading claim of the National School Chaplaincy Program – that is, that chaplains do not counsel students.  In this article, I will argue that chaplains do counsel students and that this is tantamount to playing Russian roulette with children’s lives.

First, it is important to note that chaplains require no formal secular academic qualifications. Scripture Union, one of the major bodies contracted to supply chaplains to schools explains:

“Most Chaplains aren’t trained, qualified professional counsellors.  It would be a misrepresentation to describe them in that way.  Even if some Chaplains do have formal counselling qualifications, it would be sending the wrong message to stakeholders and the public about what Chaplains are and do.”

In fact, the Effectiveness of Chaplaincy report confirms that only 2.5% of school chaplains are qualified in counselling or psychology.

Of course, the government and the organizations which supply chaplains claim this isn’t a problem because chaplains are not permitted to offer ‘counselling’ to students.  Really?  I contend that this is a matter of semantics – and Scripture Union reveals why.

“There are legal ramifications that come into play when you use the terms ‘counsellor’ and ‘counselling’.

Obviously, there will be times when Chaplains will be involved in talking one-on-one with students, staff and/or parents about issues and problems that they’re facing, but Chaplains should be involved in nothing more intensive than high-level pastoral care.”

So, chaplains don’t provide counselling – they provide ‘high-level pastoral care’.  And in what areas is this ‘pastoral care’ put to use?  According to the Effectiveness of Chaplaincy Report (2009),  chaplains have been called in to help with children’s anger issues, grief and loss, bullying, peer pressure and self esteem as well as self harm and suicide. Even more concerning, according to the Rationalist Society of Australia, is anecdotal evidence suggesting that the more devout the chaplain, the less likely they are to refer students to professional services.

In another document, Access Ministries quotes a chaplain saying:  “At the moment…., in the last week I’ve got two Grade 5 kids on suicide watch.”

Scripture Union continues:

“The language used is important.  The term ‘counselling’ should be avoided.  ‘Pastoral Care’” or ‘pastoral conversations’ are much better terms to use when describing this element of a Chaplain’s role.  This is not intended to be ‘sneaky’ [really?] but rather to accurately describe and represent the Chaplain’s role.”

So, let’s get this straight.  Chaplains are not allowed to evangelise or counsel students.  Apparently, what they are allowed to do is to have ‘pastoral conversations’ during which they are prohibited from offering advice or offering prayer or religious faith as a solution.  So, what exactly do they do during these ‘pastoral conversations’?  Pat the student’s hand and mutter “There, there”?  Whistle Dixie?

As former senator, Lyn Allison says:

“I find it difficult to imagine a chaplain who is engaged with students and young people who have problems – and that’s where they will largely be used – to not be involved in counselling.”-

The Christian Research Association appears to agree, explaining that:

“Most school chaplains spend much of their time in pastoral work. They counsel young people who are referred to them, or those who come to them voluntarily”.

Note that in this quote the words ‘pastoral work’ and ‘counsel’ are used interchangeably.

Let’s be honest about what taxpayers are investing in with the National School Chaplaincy Program.  We are placing untrained, unqualified people with a religious agenda into our public schools to support and, yes, counsel, at risk kids.  Consider this job description by a chaplain who worked at Balwyn State High School :

“Teenage suicide, depression, grief associated with separation or divorce or death, questions of sexual identity, illness, abuse, physical disability, drug use and teenage pregnancy are issues which the school chaplain confronts day in day out.”

Later promoted to a supervisory role, she continues:

We as supervisors constantly worked with moving stories of chaplains supporting students who were pregnant and needed to make hard choices about whether or not to have the baby, with chaplains journeying with students who come out as gay, or who struggled with their own attitudes to homosexuality, chaplains ministering in a time of community grief after an accident had led to the death of one or more of their students, or a range of other pastoral situations.”

Nobody doubts these people are well-meaning, but I might be equally well meaning if I attempt to extract someone’s appendix with the intent of making the pain go away.  The fact remains that my total lack of training in medicine means there is every likelihood I’ll kill them instead.  Good intentions are no defence.

Experts agree that what is needed in schools are not chaplains, but trained counsellors.   Speaking on behalf of the NSW Teachers Federation, Angelo Gavrielatos said:

“At a time of ever increasing social pressures on children, what is needed is an enhancement of professional school counselling services. Currently the school counsellor to student ratio stands at about 1:1000 in NSW schools. This money for the National School Chaplaincy Program would be better spent on additional school counsellors to achieve a more manageable caseload.”

The Parents & Citizens Council agrees.  President, Elizabeth Singer, complains  that schools are being forced to turn to school chaplains because of inadequate funding and teacher training for crucial development programs.  She says:

”Funding has not been available in another form that they [schools] could use so they have had to turn to chaplains. … ‘We have received complaints from families that schools are having to rely on chaplains to meet the social and emotional needs of the students. In government schools there is a feeling that this should be delivered by secularly trained people.”

In a submission to the government, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) says: –

On a number of occasions since the establishment of the NSCP, the APS has been contacted by members who are concerned about chaplains who have been employed in schools to provide mental health counselling to students. This has occurred either instead of or in replacement of school psychologists.”

The APS complains:

  • That the government is supporting a scheme which allows unregistered and unqualified school chaplains to work outside their boundaries as spiritual and religious personnel;
  • That there is clear evidence that school chaplains are engaging in duties for which they are not qualified;
  • That there is clear evidence that church organisations and ministries are supporting school chaplains in their boundary violations;
  • That the NSCP promotes a combination of religious guidance and mental health service provision, which is in contrast to mainstream evidence-based service provision;
  • That the government is complicit in encouraging dangerous professional behaviour by funding school chaplains independently of other services carried out by professionals who are both qualified and registered.

Let me reiterate here:  teachers don’t want the scheme;  parents and citizens don’t want it; and the people most qualified to deal with our childrens’ mental health say the program is dangerous.

The upshot of this misguided policy is that school communities who would prefer to have financial assistance to employ a trained counsellor – or to extend a part-time counsellor’s hours to full-time – are prohibited from doing so.  And trained counselors who are qualified and willing to work as ‘chaplains’ but are not associated with a religious organization are also disqualified.

For example, I have been told that  Vermont secondary school in Tasmania declined to have a school chaplain because they wished to maintain a secular school.  Instead, they wanted to apply the government funding to a youth counsellor with no affiliation to a church.  This was denied. Surely this is religious discrimination?  As social worker, Tarnya, posted on an internet blog:

“I am a Social Worker and have completed a masters paper in spirituality in state schools. I have worked as a school counsellor for more than five years, yet under John Howard’s scheme I am ineligible to apply for the recently announced positions of chaplain as I do not have a Christian affiliation which is deemed suitable by Scripture Union (the employing body).”

Bioethicist and teacher, Chris Fotinopolous, explains the problem confronting schools:

“There is no doubt that mental illness places a strain on already stretched school welfare resources. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2004-05, 7 per cent of children aged under 15 years were reported to have some form of mental or behavioural problem as a long-term health condition, with rates rising from very low levels among children aged under five years to 10 per cent of children aged 10-14 years.

But, because of the direction of funds to the NSCP, rather than qualified counselors, Fotinopolous says:

“… government schools are impelled to accept $20,000 a year for the implementation of a chaplaincy program not because they see a need for religious observance in schools, but rather as a means of securing desperately needed welfare assistance for students at risk. Considering these statistics, no school could be blamed for accepting federal funding for welfare assistance, but the Government does deserve criticism for attaching desperately needed funds to a church-led school welfare program.”

So, what is the harm?  What can happen when, instead of funding a full-time trained counsellor in a school, the government provides a part-time counselor and a full-time chaplain?

Let’s consider the case of fourteen year old Alex Wildman,  Alex, a student at Kadina State High School in Lismore, was the victim of long term, relentless bullying and physical abuse by his peers.  Yet, despite having spent a ‘significant’ amount of time with Alex over several months, the school chaplain admits that he “… never picked up that he [Alex] was being harassed.”  Notably, the school counsellor had no dealings with Alex during the sixth months he was at Kadina and the school acknowledges that “No real attempt was ever made to encourage Alex to see the school counsellor”.  Perhaps they believed, misguidedly, that with the chaplain working with the child, there was no need.

The extent of Alex’s problem only came to light when Alex was punched repeatedly in the face by a fellow student.  The chaplain’s response was to approach Alex on assembly the next day and ask if he was OK.  Alex replied, “ I’m fine … it’s all cool now…”  and, apparently, the chaplain took him at his word.

The next day Alex hanged himself.

Let me make it perfectly clear, I am, unequivocally not blaming the chaplain for this incident.  I do, however, blame the government that made this teenager’s first line of support a person who obviously had insufficient training to pick up on the signs of a child in danger.  The chaplain is as much a victim in this as anyone.  He was put in a position for which he was clearly unqualified.  He failed to see the signs that a trained counselor may have noticed.  He failed to ask the questions that might have encouraged Alex to share his concerns.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that if a full-time counsellor had been employed at the school, Alex would still be alive.  But it is sobering that, after examining the circumstances of Alex’s death, the coroner made particular note of the need for a full-time professionally trained counsellor at the school.

National School Chaplaincy is a dangerous programme which short-changes our children and plays Russian roulette with their lives.  Sure, chaplains are cheap in comparison to trained counsellors, youth workers and psychologists – but is this really an area where we should be skimping on cost?  I understand, absolutely, the claim that chaplains provide a valuable resource by being ‘out there’ interacting with the children rather than sequestering themselves in their offices.  But that is not an argument for school chaplaincy – it’s an argument to change the way counsellors work in schools.

In the next instalment of this series, I will argue that the group most at risk from this ill-advised scheme are teenagers who are, or think they may be, gay.

Chrys Stevenson

Update – 8 August 2010: The Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, will today announce an allocation of $222 million to boost the number of chaplains in schools by more than one-third, which would mean about 3700 schools will be covered under the voluntary scheme introduced by the Howard government.

First time comments on this blog are moderated, but will be approved as soon as possible.

Further Action

If you oppose the National School Chaplaincy scheme, please donate to the High Court Challenge against National School Chaplaincy.  A paypal facility is available on the website.

Ron Williams, a parent from Toowoomba, is bravely taking on the government and arguing against this scheme on constitutional grounds.  He has recently announced that high profile lawyer, Bret Walker SC will lead the legal team. Walker will be supported by Gerald Ng, Barrister, and the law firm, Horowitz and Bilinsky.

Note – money raised for the High Court Challenge goes into a trust for the payment of legal fees, not to Ron Williams and his family. For a small (or large) investment, this is a chance to be a part of Australian history.

Gladly’s Book Recommendations

Gladly’s favourite book store for online purchases is Embiggen Books.  If you’ve found this article interesting you may enjoy this further reading:

What Should We Believe? by Dorothy Rowe

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18 thoughts on “A Case Against School Chaplaincy: Part Two – Russian Roulette

  1. Sean the Blogonaut

    The problem is of course that this government has a habit of ignoring experts in this case I fear that the APA will go the same way as the IT industry in relation to the internet filter i.e. pull its hair out in frustration.

    I think if you asked most christian parents if they would prefer a qualified counselor as opposed to a motor mechanic who has done some church work to help their kids most would go for the counselor.

  2. Danny Stevens

    And what is with schools referring kids to chaplains? Jared, in the first article video, was referred to the chaplain. In my daughters school, when parents were unable to stop a minority from bringing a chaplain in, I joined the Chaplaincy Committee. There the head of student services started talking about sending kids to the chaplain as first line of approach! I argued that no kid who had not signed a consent form should be referred to a chaplain. He argued that kids would go to the chaplain off their own bat or at a suggest of the teacher regardless of parental permission. It was flabberghasting!

    1. Jodie

      I agree totally with your view. What is mostly wrong with RE classes, Chaplaincy Program and such is that most parents are unaware these even exist. Parent’s do not give written or verbal permission for children to attend (upon enrollment) in most cases and only become privy when their children come home from school with a comment or some evidence of what they are being taught or subjected to. As far as I am concerned I would like to see complete transparency for students and parents; a permission slip for RE and contact with a chaplain and the choice of signing a CO form (conscientious objection). If this program cannot be bought down completely or at least be complemented with an alternative option (thinking ethics class or similar) then the schools must be pushed to be up front and honest about what the Chaplaincy Program is and isn’t and offer parents the option to object. The rights of the parents and students to object seems not to have been considered at all, not to mention the shocking waste of money and the alterior motive of most of the people involved in this program!!

  3. Bishop Rick

    DEEWR do allow chaplains to counsel students so long as they have appropriate qualifications.

    Sounds OK?

    But where are the definitions of what constitutes ‘counselling’?

    And what about telling us what DEEWR considers are ‘appropriate qualifications’?

    Aha… DEEWR see no need to define counselling because they have had ‘no complaints’ about it.

    And they accept any recognised qualification from a registered training organisation… so a Certificate 2 in Youth Work, with, say, one unit of ‘counselling’ is fine with DEEWR.

    Gillard, as the minister responsible for DEEWR until recently, knows all this, and is not concerned by it at all.

    Will Simon Crean be any more diligent in looking after our children?

    It seems unlikely that he will, with Gillard dutchessing the religious groups so happily, with our ATO funds going to pay for a Catholic saint’s ceremony, and now with her agreement to ‘do a Rudd’ and meet the ACL.

  4. atheistbunny

    This is terrible. Just as terrible is how much Gillard is willing to sellout to gather a few more votes.
    I’ve made a small donation

  5. Pingback: Christian voters more important than the welfare of Australian children «Sean the Blogonaut

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  11. Daisy Walton

    I don’t know how to explain this but I used to self harm as a teenager. I would cut myself several times a day just to deal with depression. I was made by several teachers at school to see the chaplain instead of a guidance counsellor. The chaplain didn’t provide any help at all. He often missed the signs and tried to force religious junk down my throat. Eventually, I managed to stop self harming on my own by getting rid of my razorblades. I’m better off now.

  12. Pingback: The National School Chaplaincy Program | Godless Business

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