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UNCP social work students take on child mental health in schools

June 19, 2014

WhileNorth Carolina is having great success in reducing its dropout rate in the public schools, children with behavioral and emotional disabilities are being left behind. Dr. Summer Stanley’s class at UNC Pembroke would do something about it.

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During the spring semester, the class worked to build a multi-faceted program to raise awareness of the problem. The course, School Social Work, turned into a service-learning laboratory for the students and the community.

The plan, which culminated in a community meeting, was comprehensive, including a media relations piece, and included establishing partnerships with Scotland County Schools and Eastpointe, a regional community mental health care provider.

“The idea was to raise awareness of this concern and to promote discussion about how to best serve students with emotional and behavioral disabilities,” Dr. Stanley said. “To substantiate the need for this event, my students analyzed data on dropouts, students with disabilities, and school suspensions, both in-school and out-of-school.”

In a class visit on April 30, the students said they were pleased with their work. “We had a pretty good turnout of 25 people, and in our survey, they said they learned a lot,” said Marizela Gonzales. “We had educators, social workers, mental health specialists, school counselors, resource officers and parents.”

The students used social and mainstream media to publicize the meeting and the issues. A press release in advance of the meeting resulted in an article in the local newspaper, the Laurinburg Exchange. Dr. Stanley and Jasmine Banks were guests on the news program of a local radio station, WLNC. Dr. Stanley and Summer Stanley (no relation) were guests on another local radio station, WEWO.

Dr. Stanley obtained a grant from the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire that covered the cost of purchasing the documentary film “Who Cares About Kelsey,” which is the story of a troubled teenage girl whose life is turned around in high school. The students thought the film was effective.

“It showed the real life of this girl,” said Bianca Hall. “We got to hear her voice about her experience. That was important.”

The project raised awareness among students in the class too. “Overall, it changed my idea about these children,” said Raven Coots. “I went to school with children like this, and I guess I thought they needed a good spanking.”

For other members of the class, the semester-long project examined issues that hit close to home. “My son had problems, and I stayed at the school,” said Sandra Ingram.

“My niece was diagnosed, and they pushed her to medication,” said Brooke Wall.

“Medication is not a cure,” Ingram said. “You need to develop strategies.”

“Unfortunately, not every child is fortunate enough to have parents who can help them,” said Sarah Grissett. “It’s sad when kids with disabilities don’t have advocates.”

“As we saw in the film, it helps to have a school environment that is welcoming, not hostile,” said Zavier McDougald, who is a school social worker in the Public Schools of Robeson County. “I try to be that person who says hello as they come in the door. We’re having real success with lowering the dropout rate at Fairmont High School.”

The seed has been planted and watered too by Dr. Stanley’s class. She has been contacted by two school social workers about showing the film at their schools. A local autism support group invited her to a meeting.

This was Dr. Stanley’s first service-learning project. From hindsight, the students suggested some strategies for the next School Social Work class.

“I would love to do it again,” Dr. Stanley said. “What should we do differently?”

“We could focus on another community, or focus on just one school,” said Summer Stanley.

“We could go to the day care community,” McDougald said.

Wherever the future leads for these future social workers, the problems that children with emotional and behavioral disabilities bring to the public schools will be waiting.

For more information about this project, contact Dr. Summer Stanley at UNCP’s Department of Social Work at (910) 775-4085 or email summer.stanley@uncp.edu.