BY KAREN CAMPBELL
Weakley County Schools Communications Director
WEAKLEY COUNTY (March 7) – According to the National Association of Social Workers, school social workers are an integral link between school, home, and community in helping students achieve academic success. They work directly with school administrations as well as students and families, providing leadership in forming school discipline policies, mental health intervention, crisis management, and support services. March 7-11 is set aside as a national week to honor these mental health professionals.
Currently, Weakley County Schools employs two social workers and three Student Support Professionals. Additional resources in the county include a School-Based Behavioral Health Liaison (SBBHL) and a Student Assistance Program (SAP) counselor.
The SBBHL is housed at Greenfield school and is tasked with providing student and family counseling as well as professional development opportunities for staff related to social, emotional, and mental health wellbeing. This program is funded by a Tennessee Department of Mental Health grant awarded to Cary Counseling Center. The SAP is a direct services program offered at each campus, is open to all enrolled students as needed, and provides individual assessment, brief solution-focused therapy and/or group therapy and referrals to community resources as indicated. The SAP is a contracted service with Carey Counseling Center made possible by SAVE Act funds.
Coordinator of Safe Schools Lorna Benson and longtime social workers Brittany Jaco and Kellie Sims have ensured that services were available and/or referrals were made to address students’ needs for years. Last year Hailey Hanson came to Greenfield School as the School-Based Behavioral Health Liaison. In February, Alex Cunningham, Lindsey Odle, and Scott Smiley took their place on the growing team as Student Support Professionals.
A look back at the last academic year helps to underscore why social work professionals are critical in Weakley County Schools.
When schools opened in August 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was still in its first wave and the Student Assistance Program transitioned to providing tele-health (virtual) services. Approximately 54 referrals were received – an approximate 20 percent increase in the number of referrals from the previous year.
Referrals made to the SAP remained constant and were for issues such as grief/loss, stress management, attendance/conduct/grades, social functioning impairment, family problems, mood/anxiety/grief issues and discipline board referrals (possession/use non-prescription meds/marijuana/weapons, threats to others).
Jaco and Sims worked in concert with the SAP throughout the year. Jaco made 94 referrals during the school year; 193 individual and/or family sessions were provided and approximately 227 visits with students/parents or staff were completed. The reasons for referrals included mental health disorders (depression or other mood disorder), family problems and behavioral problems at home/school.
Sims had a caseload of 55 for the 2020-21 academic year. Assigned specifically to the special education population, she meets with Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams who must agree to the service before support is rendered. She made approximately 150 visits with students and families throughout the year and must meet with IEP teams whenever concerns arise and/or social/emotional needs are identified that need to be addressed.
Since joining the district in February, each of the three SSPs have taken on 20 cases. These may be short-term or students who needed longer term attention. The prescribed limit for the SSPs is 30 active cases.
Social workers also address the needs of staff.
“According to recent surveys of over 5,000 US teachers, many are experiencing feeling anxious, fearful, worried, overwhelmed and sad,” noted Jaco. “Anxiety, by far, was the most frequently mentioned emotion. These feelings generally can be attributed to being fearful that they or someone in their family would contract COVID-19 or stress around managing their own and their families’ needs while working full-time and adapting to new technologies for teaching.”
In a report advocating for prioritizing positive emotions in staff, she pointed to the impact of emotions on attention, memory and learning; decision-making; relationships; health and well-being; and performance. She encouraged open discussions with staff about current feelings and goals for feelings. She also provided links to information and strategies for self-care including ASCD Express’ “5 Strategies for Self-Care” and helps from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.