How do you explain the mass killing of schoolmates and educators? Who do you turn to when feeling hopeless after floodwaters wash away homes?
When crises like these rock communities, school social workers, psychologists and guidance counselors are out front helping students and adults cope and recover.
Students have a critical need to know they can turn to a familiar face, said Rachel Faiella, the lone social worker at Beacon High School and a member of the Beacon Teachers Association. She and one school psychologist serve 1,150 students.
"They need an adult there to support them rather than figuring it out on their own," she said. With sudden death, especially, "A lot of kids can't grasp the concept. It hits kids hard."
When these professional support personnel have a visible presence in schools, each student and adult is reminded they have a resource, said Peter Faustino, Bedford TA school psychologist and past president of the state Association for School Psychologists. "You increase the chance of uncovering the student or adult who is deeply troubled by the events, but hadn't considered seeking help before your offer.
"When budgets constrained programs over the last few years, school psychologists were some of the first cuts made ... now communities are realizing that the cuts are too deep and, in order for ALL children to learn, they must all first feel safe in school," Faustino said.
President Obama's new gun safety plan emphasizes the dire need for more school counselors and psychologists, who will play a key role in the president's plan for keeping students safe from gun violence.
"NYSUT has been adamant in calling for the increased presence — in schools and on campuses — of professionals who are trained to handle all sorts of situations that can affect emotional and mental health," said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president who oversees health care and health and safety for the union. "Tragic events enunciate the need to provide coping and problem-solving solutions."
The horrific shooting in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that claimed the lives of 20 students and six educators, sent shudders of disbelief throughout schools in New York state. One of the students killed was the child of a NYSUT member.
"Many parents and teachers were initially frightened and understandably so. At first, issues of safety seemed to focus on locked doors, wearing ID badges, and having a police car near the campus entrance," said Faustino. "But now the discussions are turning to a recognition of how inadequate children's mental health services are."
After the shootings, mental health professionals teamed up to help parents and teachers talk to students. "For our middle school, we extended homeroom to allow students to ask questions, have teachers remind students of all the ways they are safe, and discuss how each person could play a role in future safety," he said.
Superstorm Sandy proved no less stressful for many students, teachers, SRPs and higher education and health care professionals who lost homes and belongings and are still struggling to get their lives back to normal. It is estimated that roughly 600 NYSUT members remain homeless, four months after the storm.
"There's a lot of stress in the community as a whole," said school social worker Lisa Filocco, a member of the Marlboro Faculty Association. Many families are facing job losses, divorce and financial strain. Drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and the death of loved ones hurt students academically and emotionally.
In Yonkers, for example, students and faculty are grieving the death of a teacher killed by a train during the holidays, said Pat Puleo, president of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers.
A dwindling pool of 32 social workers, psychologists and guidance counselors must meet the needs of 26,000 students in Yonkers. Guidance counselor Roselyn Jones now tends to 900 students; she used to have 250. "A lot of the students are not being served," she said. "Before, we knew our students and if we saw a change, it was easier to catch up on it."
Seventy-five pupil service personnel fell victim to budget cuts the past few years and are on a recall list. A January contract agreement will reinstate only 24 of them, Puleo said.
"There is so little concern for social services," she said. "If we don't take care of our neediest students, nobody else will. These are basic service needs."