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Social workers delivering new, needed care in schools

September 16, 2018

HUNTINGTON — Beth Sloane’s intercom pinged at her desk at Huntington High School. On the other end, a teacher asked her to give a return call when she could, likely for another student referral.

There’s no typical day for Sloane, or any of Cabell County Schools’ four social workers — up from just one last school year.

One of the three new hires for the 2018-19 school year, Sloane covers Huntington High and Huntington East and Huntington middle schools through a Title I grant, which is federal funding allocated to individual schools serving a high number of students from low-income backgrounds.

The scope of the issues school-based social workers are tasked with alleviating is already well apparent in the first month-and-a-half at her new job, Sloane said, as a huge portion of the student population is currently dealing with some degree of trauma, many at-home byproducts of the far-reaching opioid epidemic.

“Most of my kids have been through trauma, and a lot of times it’s not the kids you would expect,” Sloane said over the phone during Wednesday’s school day. “A lot of times, I think I could just walk outside into the hallway and grab a kid who would need somebody to talk to.”

A social worker’s place in public school, as they in Cabell County describe it, is to help identify students’ needs that

interfere with learning by focusing on social, behavioral and emotional problems.

There’s no defined daily role other than providing support for anxiety, depression, peer relations, abuse and neglect, substance misuse and behavioral health issues by whatever means required in a specific case.

That could mean anything from arranging take-home meals from the school’s food pantry to simply lending the attention of a caring adult — the kind of attention that may often be absent in many families.

“Basically anything that they need, we find a way to make it work,” said Samantha Hicks, a transitional social worker who covers students coming to and from the Cabell Alternative School, residential placement facilities and mainline public schools. “Sometimes what they need is just to have someone there and listen.”

The remaining two social workers, Nicola May and Kylie Perdue, serve the county’s homeless students, its elementary students and the remaining middle schools.

Students can be referred to a social worker either by a teacher, principal or even another student. The social worker and the students meet privately and individually. First contacts are normally aimed at building a rapport and getting a sense of the student’s social history — to see what’s happening and what they can do to help, Hicks explained.

Common reasons for referrals can be all over the board, she continued: abuse at home, family and drug issues, extreme anxiety and a failure to fit in. Thinking about suicide is a problem seen particularly in older students during puberty. At the elementary levels, referrals tend to be more behavioral based: a lack of coping skills, acting impulsively — mostly all stemming from an unstable home life.

“It’s extremely important — it’s a lifeline for some kids,” Hicks said. “They can’t talk to someone they can’t trust, so they see us, they know us and they know we’re trusted adults.”

Social workers still fill a relatively new position within Cabell County Schools. Until last year, Hicks was the only one for the county.

But that new resource has quickly found use. In her first five weeks, Sloane guessed she had personally 50 different students — a number she expects to grow as faculty and students become accustomed to having dedicated social workers on-site.

“They’re not used to having social workers yet, so I think it’ll pick up,” Sloane said. “And I think the kids know when they need more support, because they’ve already come and got me.”

Their reception so far has been overwhelmingly positive, both Hicks and Sloane agreed, adding that it fills a gap in the services a school system is obligated to provide its students.

And the kids themselves, the ones who need it, seem more than eager to have someone to talk to.

“It’s huge. Our teachers have their jobs and so do our principals and our counselors, so there’s sometimes not someone there to build that rapport with kids, so having (this position) is very helpful,” Hicks said.

Across West Virginia, 58 social workers were attached to public schools during the 2017-18 school year, according to the state Department of Education.

“Most of my kids have been through trauma, and a lot of times it’s not the kids you would expect.”

Beth Sloane

Cabell County Schools social worker

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