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Since 2000, there has been an increase in mass shootings, most recently in schools (Donoghue & Raia-Hawrylak, 2016). Many of the challenges facing society are intricate and involve multiple issues. Social workers know that there are no simple solutions to complex challenges. The two primary recommendations to address school violence have been to advance gun control legislation and to put school safety officers in every school. The idea of gun control legislation is important and necessary. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has taken a firm position on this matter (Arp, Gonzales, Herstand, & Wilson, 2017). However, it is not enough. The recommendation to have more school safety officers is noble, and safety officers do many things (Saul, Williams, & Hartocollis, 2018). However, safety in schools should not be left to law enforcement. According to Sherman (2016), The perpetual lack of attention paid in schools to students’ psychological, social, and emotional well-being has led to increasing maladaptive behaviors in the classroom. These behavioral issues are often the demonstration of unacknowledged and untreated social, emotional, and familial stressors. (p. 150) Social workers have an important contribution to make in this area. NASW’s Children & Schools journal is completely devoted to children and schools. However, these issues are not only for social workers in school settings. It is imperative that social workers are engaged in assessing and providing leadership to tackle this troubling problem. It is important to understand the role of school social workers, how we can use the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study in schools, the necessity of bullying and teenage dating violence (TDV) initiatives, threat assessment and social work, and the ways social workers can aid in parent and community engagement. Role of School Social Workers Putting more social workers in schools is important; however, emphasis is needed on the role and approaches that will be necessary to maximize the influence of these practitioners (Sherman, 2016). School social work is a specialty practice that requires training and education on purview and practices in the educational setting. The role of school social workers is inconsistent across states, jurisdictions, and even school systems (Sherman, 2016). In one school, a social worker could be charged to provide case management, whereas in another school the function may be to provide group counseling. Continuity in the role would greatly help to create a consistent presence that leverages the skill set of a professional social worker in the educational setting. It is also important to have an understanding of the staff-to-student ratio so that social workers are not overwhelmed with an unrealistic caseload. Finally, school social workers do not just help students; they also serve as a resource to families and school personnel. Their presence can be uniquely helpful in identifying issues and creating responses to them. School social workers, to date, have been an untapped resource in this effort (Sherman, 2016), and that must change. Importance of the ACE Study to Social Work Practice in Schools As we consider the role of the school social worker, it is also necessary to identify areas of focus that schools should consider. The ACE Study helps researchers to better understand student health and behavioral health needs. It is important for social workers to be familiar with the ACE Study. “The ACE Study has found that ‘adverse childhood experiences’ (ACEs) . . . are widespread, largely unrecognized, and play a decisive role in the overall health, well-being, and social function of the nation” (Larkin, Felitti, & Anda, 2014, pp. 1–2). In a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente between 1995 and 1997, 17,000 participants were surveyed to better understand how childhood experiences affect health, mental health, and social factors in adulthood. It was found that 40 percent of the respondents had two or more of these experiences and that there was a clear linkage between the experiences and negative social, health, and behavioral health outcomes throughout the person’s life span (Felitti et al., 1998). Being able to assess for adverse childhood events can be a powerful tool in creating innovative prevention intervention and developing new approaches to responding to these issues during a child’s life in school. Through anonymous testing, schools can gauge a sense of the needs within the school, provide targeted training, and develop practices responsive to the needs of the student population. The school system is a natural place to use the ACE Study to support proactive programming and ensure that schools are better equipped to meet the needs of students. Bullying Prevention and Intervention Bullying prevention and intervention strategies are key on all academic levels. As I talked with one young person about this, he told me,“Adults give you all the wrong advice about bullying. They tell you things to do that are not realistic or just don’t work. Telling the teacher does nothing. You can’t trust adults to help you. So you are basically left to figure it out by yourself.” Hearing this statement troubled me. Unfortunately, this sentiment is not his alone. Survivors of bullying often do not tell their parents or adults what is happening (Ramirez, 2013). The solution is not to cut adults out of the helping process, but to both better equip them to respond and empower children in this effort (Donoghue & Raia-Hawrylak, 2016; Williford, 2015). To do this, school systems must take bullying prevention seriously (Teasley & Nevarez, 2016). Displaying posters and having workshops are not enough. Training for all school personnel is important as a way to help prevent bullying and intervene when it occurs (Letendre, Ostrander, & Mickens, 2016; Williford, 2015). Parents must be taught signs to look for in their children who may be being bullied, and strategies are needed to respond to the bully. There are interventions in place to provide such guidance (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018). Policies are needed to address bullying and should include child- and teacher-friendly protocols to put into action. Children should be empowered to find confidential ways to report bullying, and the school climate should be a space where they are encouraged to do so (Letendre et al., 2016; Teasley & Nevarez, 2016). Interventions must include knowledge of the social media impact. Given that adults may struggle with managing social media, more is needed to educate parents about social media warning signs and how to better track and monitor what is being communicated. Understanding how cyberbullying affects children in different ways, from a developmental perspective, can help in developing interventions to address this serious issue (Beran, Mishna, McInroy, & Shariff, 2015). Having our children feel safe is not limited to the walls of a school building, but also in the cyberworld, which continues to be impactful after the school day ends. The result is that interventions must take place in a comprehensive fashion that tends to school climate, policy, and systems outside of the school (Donoghue & Raia-Hawrylak, 2016). Dating Violence: Importance of School Intervention Dating and domestic violence have been linked with some of the mass shootings we have seen in recent years (Leong, 2017). Stalking is an element of dating violence that warrants attention (Theriot, 2008). Many survivors of dating violence do not report what they are experiencing to the adults in their lives (Bent-Goodley, 2011; Hertzog, Harpel, & Rowley, 2016), resulting in possible risks for the child and others. The majority of school systems do not have policies on how to identify and respond to dating violence. In fact, only 20 states have TDV-related policies (Hertzog et al., 2016), and only 13 of those states require TDV education in schools (Black, Hawley, Hoefer, & Barnett, 2017). There is a limited understanding of how dating violence can link with threat assessment and other potential safety considerations. Dating violence and stalking can be important signals for school systems to identify early as a way of keeping children safe in school (Theriot, 2008). Thus, more training on red flags of dating violence is needed so that systems know when there is a heightened risk of serious injury or potential lethality. Lethality assessment has been done primarily in community settings; however, there is a need to include such assessment within schools as part of threat assessment and safety planning. School social workers may not be able to offer the direct level care for people affected by dating violence due to the purview of their role. However, social workers in the community can assist with dating violence and stalking education—providing safety planning and services to the survivor and family members—and help to coordinate needed services. Thus, working together social workers can be that much more effective in meeting the needs of this population (Black et al., 2017). Threat Assessment and Social Work Threat assessment is an important area for involvement of social workers. School social workers can be important members of threat assessment teams. Threat assessment teams are often charged with identifying and responding to potential threats, developing systemwide plans on how to respond, and offering interdisciplinary coordinated responses (Barton, 2008). Knowing how to work effectively on these teams is important. Social workers from within the community—youth programs and recreation centers—can be helpful by serving on threat assessment teams to increase the number of people with different types of information to help inform thinking and responses. They can help identify issues within the community that seep into the school and can also develop coordinated responses with school systems to assist. Thus, social workers bring an important element to threat assessment both within and outside of the school. Parent and Community Engagement Parent and community engagement are also useful elements to keeping schools safe (Progress, 2014). The solution is not simply in the children and the school. Schools exist as part of a larger community composed not only of individuals, but also of families who are often in need of help. Although school social workers may not have family and community engagement as part of their purview, there are often social workers working in those communities that have relationships in place. They can provide important linkages to the community and can work with families to provide necessary supports and care that are culturally responsive to ACE (Larkin et al., 2014). Having this broader trusted relationship in place when threats exist can provide an extra set of eyes to identify when a more coordinated and systemic intervention is needed (Theriot, 2008). This approach requires coordination and a collective effort, but social workers are well equipped to respond and are already in place in many communities. Conclusion It will take all of us to keep our children safe. All children have a right to learn in a safe environment. How we keep our schools safe can be strengthened when more social workers are at the table. Social workers bring a range of skills, and relationships with other community providers, to educational settings. Now, more than ever, schools would benefit from an increased social work presence. References Arp , J. , Gonzales , R. , Herstand , M. , & Wilson , M. ( 2017 ). Gun violence in the American culture [Social Justice Brief]. Washington, DC : National Association of Social Workers . Barton , R. ( 2008 ). Keeping schools safe through threat assessment . Education Digest, 74 ( 1 ), 20 – 25 . Bent-Goodley , T. B. ( 2011 ). The ultimate betrayal: A renewed look at intimate partner violence . Washington, DC : NASW Press . Beran , T. , Mishna , F. , McInroy , L. B. , & Shariff , S. ( 2015 ). Children’s experiences of cyberbullying: A Canadian national study . Children & Schools, 37 , 207 – 214 . 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Social Work – Oxford University Press
Published: May 24, 2018
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