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School Violence Solutions: Social workers focus on mental health aspect

By Paul R. Pace, News staff

Headlines announcing the latest incidents of school violence have become common, and calls for solutions have been open to debate.

Rather than promote a fortress mentality to protect students from violence, social workers are urging more programs and resources that provide early mental health screenings and treatments for school children. In addition, social workers are promoting the value of a community approach to aid troubled students before they feel the need to act out in violence.

“Most children spend a large portion of their waking hours within the responsibility of school systems,” said Robert Broce, assistant professor and MSW coordinator at the Southern Connecticut State University School of Social Work. “When schools are not safe, the nation is not safe. As schools take on the responsibility of these young people, they have an obligation to do everything possible to keep them safe.  All schools are potentially at risk for incidents of violence.”

Cutting back on school social workers has been a common practice for school districts to save money in recent years, Broce said, and in many of the latest high-profile school violence incidents, undertreated mental health issues have been named as a contributing factor.

“School counselors, and especially school social workers, are in a position to screen for mental health concerns and identify needed services,” he said. “Reducing support staff, or hiring less-qualified support staff, creates additional risk for violence in schools.”

Broce and Valerie Dripchak, professor of the MSW program at Southern Connecticut State University, presented a webinar earlier this year called “The Role of School Social Workers in Preparing School Systems for High Profile Tragedies,” which was an NASW Specialty Practice Sections webinar. More information: socialworkers.org/sections/default.asp.

Both professors stress that school social workers are uniquely positioned to contribute to crisis-management efforts in their schools because of their ecological-systems training.

Connecticut has become highly focused on addressing school safety after a 20-year-old man fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., in December 2012.

Stephen Karp, executive director the NASW Connecticut Chapter, said the chapter has advocated for more mental health services, specifically having school social workers in every school and expanding school-based health centers.

A concern is that resources will go into the physical building, Karp said, like adding bulletproof glass, alarm systems and security scanners, or into more police and armed guards in the schools.

“Thus, we have tried to frame the issue differently by pointing out that part of school safety has to be school-based mental health services that can help to identify and address student’s mental health issues early on and assist students, teachers and staff deal with problems that may arise, including the aftermath of a violent incident,” he said.

In an effort to accomplish this goal, the chapter has joined other children’s mental health advocates in advancing mental health services for school-aged children as a member of Connecticut’s Keep the Promise Coalition, which is dedicated to ensuring that a comprehensive, community mental health system is created and sustained for children, adults and families in the state.

Keep the Promises Children’s Committee co-chairwomen Abby Anderson and Ann Smith noted that the coalition recently released a brief that highlights the outcomes of two successful pilot programs in schools.

The results support positive outcomes — socially and academically — for the children later in life, Anderson said.

Smith and Anderson plan to promote their brief for consideration in Connecticut’s Public Act 13-178, a law that directs the Department of Children and Families to produce a children’s behavioral health plan for the state by October 2014.

They both promote the value of having social workers in schools.

From the June 2014 NASW News. Read the full story here.

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