Newcomb-Lewis, Hickman: Social workers vital to WV education (Opinion)

  • and Sam Hickman, Charleston Gazette-Mail

School social workers often work behind the scenes, making it possible for children to overcome life’s obstacles so they get the best possible education.

They are school social workers such as Shanna Smith, in McDowell County, who brought mental health services to the school system for the estimated 61 percent of low-income children and youth with mental and emotional issues. She also helped start the first elementary tennis team, and generally promotes social, emotional and behavioral well-being in school and society.

They are social workers such as Katie Ratcliffe and Patrick Williams, in Raleigh County.


Williams noticed several boys with repeated behavior issues and began having lunch with them. He served as a positive role model, taught life lessons and checked in with them at midday. As more students expressed interest, he formally created “Team Impact,” a school club whose motto is: “Having a positive impact on others by modeling Respect, Integrity, Strength and Kindness.” Students and their parents are asked to be role models. The entire school has benefited.

Ratcliffe helped two often-truant, homeless students find stable housing with their mother, corresponding through notes sent via backpack, because there was no phone service. Now, the kids don’t miss school any longer. Mom and the kids are doing well, and they are happy.

They are social workers such as Samantha Hicks, in Cabell County, who takes a trauma-focused approach to address barriers to education, such as mental health, abuse, neglect, peer relationships, unmet medical needs or lack of basic necessities. She says, “We offer a safe, supportive atmosphere in which we build connections to facilitate change and positive outcomes.”

These types of interventions help kids build a better future for themselves and others.

Our nation needs school social workers now, more than ever, whether schools are located in cities, suburbs or rural areas, in rich or poor neighborhoods.

More Americans — including young people — grapple with mental illness. Schools across the country are trying to address bullying and higher rates of suicide, the second-leading cause of death for teenagers.

America’s gun violence epidemic has sadly become rooted in our schools, with eight school shootings resulting in four deaths reported before 2019 was half over.

Having more social workers in school can help address these problems.

For instance, school social workers can help prevent school violence. They are trained to understand risk factors and warning signs of violent behaviors. They are knowledgeable in classroom management and behavior intervention, and they can assist teachers and other school personnel in identifying concerning behaviors of students, while developing supportive intervention plans.

And social workers are experts in research-based school discipline policy development that can increase school connections and decrease incidents of school violence.

West Virginia recently enacted a law that makes it possible to hire more school social workers and other mental health professionals. Yet our schools, and many across the nation, fail to meet National Association of Social Workers guidelines calling for at least one social worker for 250 students, or one per 50 students if the children have intensive needs.

West Virginia is also preparing to invest in innovative programs and best practices, utilizing money from the opioid settlement, federal and state sources. Hiring more school social workers would better equip students to deal with trauma, avoid unhealthy behaviors, find resources to help them thrive and come to school ready to learn.

The School Social Work Association of America and the National Association of Social Workers have launched a “Back to School with Social Workers” campaign this year, to raise awareness about the benefits that social workers bring to schools.

We urge you to find out more about social workers in your local schools, support them and urge your boards of education to make sure there are enough social workers to meet the needs of your students.

The future of our children is at stake.