The seven social workers employed by Forest Park School District 91 were troubled by the news last year that two Proviso East students committed suicide, but they weren’t shocked.
Because of the work they do every day involving the mental health of children, they know that kids these days are dealing with levels of negative stress unheard of in the days when their grandparents were going to school.
Emily Milman, social worker at Garfield, recalled the student who was having a hard time at school. She learned that they [plural pronoun used to protect student’s privacy] had no contact with their biological parents, were living with a grandparent and were coming to school without having eaten breakfast.
“We had another student,” said Emily Jasinski, the social worker at Field Stevenson, “who lost both parents on separate occasions to gun violence and that child had to come to school and try to learn.”
Andrea Coco, social worker at Betsy Ross, listed some of the unique negative stresses kids experience these days: incarceration of a parent, single-parent families, parents’ worries discussed in front of their children, bullying on social media, increasing academic expectations, and world news they see on TV.
The D91 school board has been well aware of greater stresses experienced by students and has increased the number of social workers hired so that each of the five schools has their own.
Part of the social worker’s job is diagnostic and preventive. Coco explained that, sometime this month, classroom teachers will fill out a questionnaire on each of their students called SABERS (Social Academic Behavioral Emotional Rating Scale), which will help her and her colleagues identify at-risk students and guide them regarding what interventions and resources may be appropriate, such as teaching social skills, problem-solving skills or behavior skills.
Lucia Suarez, the social worker at Grant White, added, “A lot of what we do is teacher training and sharing information with our staff to help teachers recognize signs that a student is being abused or self-harming or having suicidal ideation.”
“If teachers report suicide ideation to the social workers,” said Michelle Hopper, director of student services for D91, “we immediately call SAS (Screening, Assessment and Support Services) and they bring in someone to do an evaluation to determinate if the student should be hospitalized.”
“Unfortunately, we’ve had to make way too many SAS calls.”
A program called PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support) has been in place in the district for several years now. It’s a program that sets schoolwide expectations and reinforces them with both rewards and consequences.
Hopper said that teachers prevent small incidents from escalating by, for example, designating a space in the classroom as a “calm corner” or a break area where their students can use calming strategies like counting to 10 or doing wall pushups.
Milman noted that the district has already devoted a whole week to kindness with the goal of helping students understand the importance of getting along with each other, being in touch with their feelings, and learning how to manage their emotions. Last week, a consultant gave a presentation on the difference between safe touches and unsafe touches, safe secrets and unsafe secrets.
Hopper acknowledged that D91 has had some students who have come out as trans-gender and that her staff has dealt with those youth in a very straightforward way.
“I’ve been to conferences where lawyers give us legal advice on what to do,” she said, regarding the question of which bathroom to use, “but a lot of it is just having a conversation with the students, seeing where they feel most comfortable and, in the case where they were born female but identify as male, letting them use the bathroom in the nurse’s office.”
She also noted that the GSA Club (Gay Straight Alliance) has become increasingly active at the middle school and has helped raise awareness about the issue to both students and faculty. “A year or two ago,” she said, “the students in the GSA Club made a presentation after school, which was optional for both students and staff. In it they did things like review appropriate vocabulary for LGBTQ kids. I thought it was courageous for them to do that.”
All seven social workers agreed that tending to their own self-care is extremely important. One way Julie Hantson, D91’s assistant director of Student Services, looks for rejuvenation at the end of the day is by reflecting on what many of the students unknowingly give to her.
“We have a lot of really resilient kids, which is pretty amazing,” Hopper said. “Some of them have been through so many tragic and traumatic things, but they come to school and are positive lights here, good friends and good helpers.”
She, too, pointed to the positive experiences she’s had as a social worker and added, “We have to find the positives. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do this every day.”