Everyone talks about putting more police in schools, but how about more social workers? Wouldn’t we rather prevent incidents than police them? I am a social work student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and my internship is in a Baltimore city high school. As an experiment, we asked a group of students if they knew someone who died recently. Half the class raised their hand, and only one said it was their 90-year-old grandma. The rest of the students discussed friends, family members or acquaintances who were killed by gun violence.
These kids are exposed to the worst kind of violence every day, and how are they dealing with it? Well, who knows? The social workers assigned to Baltimore city public schools mostly interact with students who have IEP’s (Individualized Education Plans). But what if you are a regular kid who went for a walk in the park over the weekend and witnessed a shooting? Now he can no longer concentrate on his school work because he can’t get that image out of his mind. He is not one to speak up, and so we don’t notice him until he starts acting out aggressively toward other students, and then we say, “See, we need more police in the school.” But what he really needed was a social worker.
But if you don’t have an IEP, you don’t have a social worker.
What about teachers? I used to be a teacher, and students will talk to you, but is this how we want our teachers spending their time? Do we want to trade reading, writing and math for trauma processing? And are teachers qualified to have these conversations? I know I wasn’t when I was a teacher. As Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea K. McDaniels observed in a December 2014 article, social workers understand things teachers cannot. We can train teachers to be aware of behaviors that appear after someone has been exposed to violence, but then they need to refer that student to a trained professional. How great would it be if that trained professional was in the room down the hall? Wouldn’t it also be great if they could collaborate going forward?
Programs like the Promise Heights initiative, a partnership led by UMB’s School of Social Work to support the West Baltimore neighborhood of Upton/Druid Heights, are doing just that. Their mission is to “surround children and families with a holistic set of supports that enable them to succeed at home, in school and in the community.” They are placing more resources in the community to benefit families from pregnancy and birth into young adulthood.
Trauma is a growing area in the field of social work and there has never been a more pressing need to put the research into practice. Annette March-Grier, executive director of Roberta’s House, a family grief support center in Baltimore, told The Sun “You hear about the shootings, but you don’t hear about the aftermath. It’s like you’re killing 10 other people when you kill one. It’s just slowly.” Not only is this trauma having ripple effects in communities, it is changing individuals’ biological make up; research shows that exposure to violence creates “long-lasting changes in brain anatomy and physiology.”
Every neighborhood needs a Promise Heights program, but until that happens, let’s increase the number of social workers in schools. I ask all principals to think about the benefits of having more social workers in their schools and to look at their budgets to figure out how to make that happen. What value do you place on your students well being? Maybe you can’t afford a full time social worker, so consider hiring someone part time. Parents, write to your school principal and ask how you can help create space in the school budget by coordinating volunteers for something they are paying for now. If we all work together, we can make it happen. Social workers are on the front lines and can affect the most change in the quickest way.
Jennifer Cleanthous is a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Social Work. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.