The first week of March is slated as National School Social Work Week.
Weakley County Schools Communications Director Karen Campbell says the 2020 observance falls at a time when Weakley County Schools administration and staff are focused on how to respond to the increasing mental health needs of students from across the county.
Kellie Sims and Brittany Jaco are the two social workers tasked with serving the entirety of Weakley County’s 4,000+ student population. Sims focuses on children and youth who have Individualized Education Plans in the special education program, while Jaco addresses the rest of the general population.
Both women cover tasks such as assessing students, obtaining their history including family background, and coordinating and linking students and families with needed services. Both also offer solution-based therapy on a limited and short-term basis.
“The majority of the job is mediating between parents, the school system, staff and the child to get everyone on the same page,” explained Jaco who joined Sims for a brief interview during the week of highlighting school social work.
“But we are both available at any time in a crisis situation,” she added.
Sims has accumulated 20 years of experience in her role and Jaco is in her 13th in a school setting. Both agree that mental health issues are on the rise.
“We are even seeing more and more children entering Pre-K and Kindergarten who are coming to us with behavioral problems,” Sims noted.
During the 2018-19 school year, she had 52 students in her caseload and referred approximately 10 to the Student Assistance Program (SAP), a direct services program offered at each campus that provides individual assessment, brief solution-focused therapy and/or group therapy and referrals to community resources as indicated.
Records for the 2018-19 school year show a nearly 50% increase in total referrals to SAP over the previous year, and nearly twice the numbers referred in 2016-17.
Jaco reported working with 96 students from the general population last year with 76 of those identifying issues tied to family problems – divorce, conflict among family members, drug and/or alcohol use, and foster care. And 46 of the students were connected to Jaco as the result of some type of mental health disorder such as depression.
The top ten reasons students were referred (in descending order of frequency) include: family problems, behavior problems, mental health issues, social problems, academic problems, anxiety issues, anger management problems, alcohol and drug problems, history of abuse and grief issues.
“Our kids are dealing with way too much,” underscored Lorna Benson, the county Safe Schools Coordinator who has a 26-year history with the school system. “We’ve seen a change in the family structure, often with children being raised by grandparents or other family members. They’re doing the best they can but they’re not always equipped to deal with the 21st century technological perils. We have kids placed in foster care due to neglect or the arrest of their parents. Many parents are trying hard to provide for their children but they may have two jobs and are tired and constantly worried about money. Kids see this and absorb it. And then there are the problems we may discover at school but cannot completely address such as cyberbullying which can continue after they leave our care.”
To address the physical, mental, emotional, academic, and safety needs of Weakley County students, the school system employs Sims, Jaco, and Benson, along with a special education staff, a director for Coordinated School Health, and a school counselor, a school nurse and a School Resource Officer on every campus. An array of programs is also available.
While Sims and Jaco praise the support they receive from administrators and the school board, they are adamant that more needs to be done.
“We need a social worker at every school,” Jaco stressed. “I love my job and am always open to trying new programs; however, it’s frustrating that there is hardly any time to focus on prevention efforts. The need is so great that we have to deal with numerous crisis situations and that means prevention has to take a back seat. It’s like having one nurse for the whole county and expecting that to work. It just doesn’t.”
To provide for a nurse at every school, Randy Frazier, director of schools, had to tap into local funding since the state formula for determining funding for personnel, including nurses, does not allow for what all admit are some of the first to see the stomach aches and headaches that are indicators of anxiety and depression.
“We would have to expand our budget even further to provide for the number of social workers we need,” Frazier acknowledged. “We are asking legislators to change the Basic Education Program funding formula but we have been asking for that for quite a few years and we haven’t seen the requested changes yet.”
As one way to try and address the emotional and mental health crisis the county is facing, Frazier is turning to a systems approach and inviting representatives of support services such as the Department of Child Service, Youth Villages, Juvenile Court, the District Attorney’s Office and more to a roundtable discussion. He said he hopes to have a gathering scheduled before the school year concludes.
Sims and Jaco would like legislators to understand the impact decisions they make regarding standards and limited funding have on both students and teachers.
“Our children and our teachers are stressed,” Jaco said. “We have to address social and emotional needs if we want to see the greatest academic achievements. If we choose to continue on the current path, none of it’s going to get any better.”
Until then, they will respond to the calls for interventions and, when possible, introduce as much prevention as they can into the school day. One example of that is a focus on mindfulness.
In just three minutes, using a cartoon featuring a calm voice, a class can be introduced to how to breathe deeply, sit in the quiet and put aside much of the confusion and chaos in their thinking.
“The statistics behind something as simple as coming in and gathering themselves in mindful practices is amazing,” Jaco said.
“When someone is in high anxiety they can’t focus,” Sims added. Then, with a nod toward the importance of having school social workers concluded, “When they can calm down, they can learn better.”
(photo: Kellie Sims, seated, and Brittany Jaco are the two school social workers serving the Weakley County School System. The first week of March is designated at National School Social Work Week.)