School Violence Solutions: Social workers focus on mental health aspect

Crayons and rifle cartridges scattered on a tableHeadlines 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:

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.

“We’ve been cutting social work positions like crazy and spending a lot of money to bring police in,” said Anderson. “At the very least you should have both. But you shouldn’t have police instead of social workers.”

“We need the social workers in the schools, because they are trained,” Smith said.

Unlike police, social workers can make mental health identifications and point the child or youth and their families to referral services to get the interventions that will assist them, she said.

“The social work role is key for many students since the school is the most likely place to access those services,” Smith said. “Social workers are skilled to identify protective or risk factors that can be important to the outcome of any child.”

“Failure to identify children and youth with mental health conditions leads to a loss of critical development years and can lead to involvement in high-end crisis settings and the juvenile justice system,” the Keep the Promise Coalition brief states.

“It makes sense. A child with anger issues at 5 or 6 — if you give them coping mechanisms at that age — they will know how to use them later in life,” Anderson said.

More information about the coalition:

School violence is preventable

When the White House and the U.S. Department of Education seek expert input on addressing school violence, administrators have consistently called upon social worker Marlene Wong, who has invested more than 20 years in analyzing the behavior of school children exposed to trauma.

The associate dean, clinical professor and director of field education at the University of Southern California School of Social Work is also the principal investigator for the Trauma Services Adaptation Center for Resilience, Hope and Wellness in Schools. The center is a community-based research partnership and member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

What researchers have found is that children who are troubled “are often suffering in silence from invisible wounds that may not be apparent to teachers and even parents,” Wong said.

Data show that children exposed to violence before the fifth grade have higher chances of expulsion, suspension, absenteeism and lower reading scores, she said.

“Now we are looking at how do we change this in schools and support educators to identify children (at risk) earlier, and to modify our clinical interventions to teach curricula that educators can modify in the classroom,” Wong said.

She noted that more than 25 percent of American youths experience a serious traumatic event by their 16th birthday and many children suffer multiple and repeated traumas.

After a crisis or traumatic event, a child is at risk of developing traumatic stress, she said. About 25 percent of victims and witnesses of violence develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or anxiety disorders.

Wong said her key message whenever she speaks to high-profile lawmakers and educators is that school violence is preventable.

“Risk factors are not ‘predictafactors,’” she said. “No matter where that child is in the spectrum of health we can we take them and move them forward and help them build resilience and coping skills,” she said. “It is never too late and we should never give up.”

Wong said the Trauma Services Adaptation Center is in the dissemination phase of its research that provides evidence-based trauma prevention and recovery systems for school personnel and communities. Its website,, includes resources for educators, parents and mental health professionals.

The goal is to build resilience among students who face an array of trauma experiences and improve access to trauma-related resources in schools throughout the nation.

“There is nothing more important right now than the safety of our children in schools, from the perspective of the Department of Education and the White House,” Wong said.

She noted that the federal government is changing its funding mechanisms to support a medical home model of care for Americans, and with it will come the integration of behavioral health and health care.

“As we move toward a medical homes model, social workers will be working in the community, and prevention will be an integral part of care,” she said.

This model may also support the development of clinics inside schools, Wong said, adding that greater attention will be given to the child’s community as a whole in this model.

A community approach

Another way social work can help children lead safer lives is by being part of multidisciplinary teams that include members of the community.

An example of this is BRAVE, or Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination, which is designed to reduce and eliminate violent crimes committed by juveniles ages 14-21 in high-crime areas of Baton Rouge, La.

Social work educators at Louisiana State University are a key part of the BRAVE team, which formed in 2012. LSU assists law enforcement in pinpointing pockets of criminal activity in an effort to offer young criminal offenders an opportunity to choose a different path.

Youths are given the opportunity for health and mental health assessments as well as services such as education, substance-abuse treatment, workforce development, mentoring, and mental health counseling.

Cecile Guin is the director of the Office of Social Service Research and Development and professor of research at the LSU School of Social Work, College of Human Sciences and Education. She coordinates the research team for BRAVE, which involves members from other departments of the university, including sociology, geography, communications, human resources and economic development.

“What happens is if we can identify the crime center and put resources there, it becomes more difficult for offenders to commit crimes,” Guin said.

Social worker Juan Barthelemy, an assistant professor at LSU, said he has seen the positive changes the BRAVE program has made for young people. He said the key to its success is having community leaders — schools, law enforcement and faith-based groups — meeting on the same page and telling young offenders that BRAVE will stand behind them if they want to make a change in their lives.

“LSU sits in the middle of the community,” Guin said of the Baton Rouge area. “This is an awesome opportunity that shows we care.”

  • More information: The Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination
  • Additional Resource: The NASW Practice Perspective, The School Social Worker in Crisis Situations: The Right Skills, The Right Professional, explains how school social workers are liaisons between the schools, the parents and the students. They assume a leadership role in guiding the school community in healthy and effective responses.