March 09, 2018

School social workers even more vital in an increasingly dangerous world

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
school social worker

Sayville social worker Dawn Lloyd-Matthews was among those who went into high gear this week to help students and teachers cope with concerns about new threats of violence to schools, including at least one specific to her district. Ironically, her call to action came just as National School Social Worker Week launched March 4-10.

The threats — which are being reported in schools across the nation — came on the heels of the recent school shooting murders of 17 people in Parkland, Fla. and one this week in Alabama that have left school communities on high alert. Administrators are relying even more on the expertise of both security personnel and health care professionals such as school psychologists, nurses, counselors and social workers to work with students.

On Monday, Lloyd-Matthews helped write an advisory dialogue for teachers to use in middle school classrooms the next day to ease students’ fears.

“Kids are concerned. They’re scared,” said Lloyd-Matthews, a vice-president of the Sayville Teachers Association who was named Health Care Professional of the Year last April by NYSUT. “What they’re feeling is normal. How do we work through it?”

Sayville is just one of numerous schools across the country this week that have been subjected to threats of violence. Administrators here are hosting a community safety forum on March 20 at the middle school and also reminding parents in a letter on the school’s website to check their children’s backpacks before they leave for school.

Lloyd-Matthews’s advisory urged educators to remind students that school is safe; and suggested asking them to consider the difference between reporting and gossip when people are talking about something that may be happening. Students were asked to stick to their regular routines, including after-school activities, and reminded not to open an outside, locked door for anyone — even a teacher. First floor windows need to be locked when a classroom is empty, said Lloyd-Matthews, who has been a school social worker for 26 years. She’s also known on the basketball court as a coach.

“Everything I do, from me being a social worker to being part of the union, I do because I enjoy it. That’s who I am,” she said. “I help others. I support.”

This year she is working with 25 special education students with Section 504 accommodation plans and 40 students with Individualized Education Programs. She is the only social worker for the school population of 714 students. She is part of a middle school team of professionals including school counselors for each of grades 6, 7 and 8; a student assistant counselor through BOCES who works primarily on substance abuse; and a school psychologist.

Her work, like many other school social workers, also entails hosting groups. She has programs dealing with feelings, social skills, self-esteem, bullying and responsible texting. Lloyd-Matthews also works with seventh graders on social media: investigating sites and Instagram. In eighth grade she spends time showing students how to stay safe on the internet and just how vulnerable they can be on social media. It is a place where predators can show up in disguise, working on getting a young adolescent to trust them, and then lure them – a situation which has happened to students here.

“That is a big concern,” Lloyd-Matthews said. “Predators are really very patient. They groom…When I do my presentation I show statistics of kids their age who’ve gone missing.”

She also visits classrooms for talks about social media, encouraging students to limit the information they put on their profile page. Perhaps, she suggests, they could use their initials, or make up a name.

The dangers of social media don’t just come from predators: it can also be a platform for bullying. An insult, a lie, or a photo that has been altered to incriminate can take on a much more pervasive level of harm when it is online for the entire world to see.

When the state’s Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) was first enacted, Lloyd-Matthews said she took cyber-bullying education “to the next level. It’s a passion of mine.” She presented information to all grades and at parent events to talk about how cyber-bullying is used to intimidate, harass, embarrass, and cause mental or emotional harm. The bully often hides behind a screen name.

“Because of social media we have more and more kids with symptoms of anxiety, school avoidance, and symptoms of depression,” she said. Examples would include someone changing a photo so the face of the student looks like the devil; changing someone’s photo to make it look they are using a drug; or claiming someone is a snitch. Rumors about a person can spread quickly through social media.

“I believe there has been an increase in suicidal ideation,” Lloyd-Matthews said. “There’s so much emotional behavior impacting these students.”