Heeding the call for help . . .

Barbara Adolfi

Superintendent of Schools Shannon Grimsley’s alarming, poignant and honest front page interview (Rappahannock News, Jan. 17) about the steady rise in students who have had one or more thoughts of suicide is a call to action for our community. Across socioeconomic and ethnic lines, students who may have psychological vulnerabilities may also be experiencing problems at home and in the community. They bring those problems to school. Teachers are often the first-line in identifying these children who need help from preschool through graduation.

Depending on the nature and severity of the trauma in the students’ lives, school staff may see a range of behaviors from withdrawal and sadness to outrageous acting out angry behavior. When children are in psychological pain, school achievement will most often decline. Whose job is it to talk with families to assess the cause of the school problems and to help them develop a plan for improvement?

The large question is do we have, or how can we build, the prevention and early intervention services in our community so we support a student and family before serious problems arise? Do we have the necessary services? How accessible is the help to the family? How do we integrate community services with school needs so that struggling students have improved school performance? Are these community-based, family-focused services which will result in improved school performance and prevent out of home placement?

It is somewhat ironic and timely that the same issue of RappNews had a second front-page article dealing with the complex needs of the foster care system, the service needed when a child is placed out of his or her home. These are sometimes the same children and the same questions apply.

We can all applaud Dr. Grimsley’s call for a community task force to assess problems and make recommendations. Fortunately CCLC has taken a leadership role in assessing the needs of children of all ages in Rappahannock County and contracted a professional study to assess the needs of children. The results will be available in just a few weeks. A task force committed to developing improved pathways to meet the physical and emotional needs for children and families can build on this study.

Rappahannock Schools lack and need a well trained and experienced School Social Worker. Who are School Social Workers?

“School Social Workers are trained mental health professionals with Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) who provide services related to a person’s social, emotional and life adjustment to school and/or society,” explains the School Social Work Association of America. “School Social Workers  are the link between the home, school and community in providing direct as well as indirect services to students, families and school personnel to promote and support students’ academic and social success.”

The majority of Virginia’s school systems now employ MSW school social workers. Degree requirements include a two year academic program and two clinical placements with supervision. As a key member of the clinical team composed of the school psychologist and school counselors, school social workers are mental health professionals in the school who are available to respond quickly to teachers and administrators worried about a student. The School Social Worker is the link to community services necessary to support students living in crisis and hardships, the hungry with little energy left for learning, the abused and neglected, the depressed and potentially suicidal and those who may have been victims of bullying, .

One example of a school social work response to Dr. Grimsley’s call for help with suicidal students:

The creators of the Netflix program “13 Reasons Why” had the good intention of trying to provide a program that would stimulate positive conversation about teen suicide. Now, in its second season, mental health professionals continue to express grave concerns about how this program might evoke self-destructive impulses in children. The school social worker, again as part of the school team, can respond to those worries. S/he would set up a series of workshops for students, parents and educators to help them deal with the dangerous feelings evoked by this very popular series.

Another example, School Social Workers assist in implementing proven suicide and abuse prevention curriculum.

Early Intervention is critical at every level. Preschool special education evaluations may identify children whose trauma as infants and toddlers resulted in delayed speech and physical development. The role of the school social worker is to find the help that a family needs to reduce trauma for the child so that s/he will be able to make use of education programs .

In closing, I would like to repeat my support for community response to Dr. Grimsley’s call to action for help dealing with the problems that students are bringing to school from preschool through graduation. As one piece of that response, I recommend restoration of the position of MSW school social worker for the next budget year.

The writer, who lives in Sperryville, is a retired Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).

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