WILLIAMSVILLE — Newly retired from 21 years with the English department and theater program at Leland & Gray Union High School, I am baffled by the school's administrative proposal to eliminate the social worker from in-house staff.
Such a move seems myopic and ill-advised in the face of the 21st century's technology blitz, the impact of which has been steadily intensifying for years.
I have a smart phone, and I try to be a smart user, but I curse what the device has done to our kids.
Teaching primarily older students at Leland & Gray, I would find myself several times a year in high pitch at faculty meetings urging that we pay more attention to electronics addiction.
My main concern was that the personal electronic device has increasingly been eating away at literacy and deterring depth in reading and writing. (“Why do I need to learn to research if I can get answers right away on my phone? Why should I learn spelling or grammar when my phone can fix my mistakes? Why do I need to write in depth? I say what I need to say in a text.”)
And for students who love the quick buzz of such texts, reading as we have known and loved it is altogether enslaved to the quick byte.
Academics aside, among my students I gradually saw the dehumanization to which our love affair with the screen has led. I have a soft spot in my heart for all the kids I worked with at Leland & Gray; thus, it saddened me deeply to see that some will say things to each other through social media that they'd never say face to face. Often bullying, heartless things.
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Some will take as fact what may well be fabrication - something that good, old-fashioned human reasoning could discern. Entertaining oneself with a good book, a craft, or a board game is passé for too many kids as they're lulled by YouTube and lured by Facebook, only to face a void, bereft of satisfaction, fulfillment, or a sense of accomplishment.
Thus, I was not surprised to read research by Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, which showed that by 2012 more than half of the population had an iPhone.
According to a summary of Twenge's findings on yourmodernfamily.com, that was when “more kids started to say that they felt 'sad, hopeless, useless'” and “that they couldn't do anything right [depression] and that they felt left-out and lonely.”
On her website, Twenge writes: “[T]eens who spend more time on screens are less happy and more depressed (in a large, nationally representative sample of U.S. teens).” She added that it seems likely “that as smart-phone and social- media use increased, depression and unhappiness followed.”
According to Victoria Prooday, Toronto-based occupational therapist and blogger, “Today's children are being deprived of the fundamentals of a healthy childhood.” They are being served with, among other debilitating fare: “Digitally-distracted parents” and “endless stimulation, technological babysitters, instant gratification, and absence of dull moments.”
Sadly, according to TIME.com, “Despite the rise in teen depression, [a] study, which analyzed data from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, reported that there wasn't a corresponding increase in mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Researchers said this is an indication that there is a growing number of young people who are under-treated or not treated at all for their symptoms.”
So why would a school drop an in-house lifeline for its kids?
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Over my last several years at Leland & Gray, I'd been seeing an increase in the number of students approaching meltdown who'd request to see the school's social worker, Susan Gunther-Mohr, a doctoral-level clinician. And I noted an increasing number of students with passes to group and individual sessions with her.
Gunther-Mohr now regularly sees a third of the school population, including 20 percent of the student body. In her three days on campus weekly, she also runs 10 separate groups serving nearly 50 students.
When I first started at Leland & Gray, I had concerns about some of my students living in poverty and others with substance abusers. A few of them, too, were addicted to video games to such a degree that they failed to get enough credits to graduate.
What's at risk now? Game obsession is still a problem, but use of personal electronic devices is even more insidious. Without an in-house social worker, the school is threatened with the loss of intimate awareness of child development and vision regarding the impact of technology and the disintegration of family structure as we know it.
According to a fact sheet disseminated by citizens and professionals concerned about the loss of this staff position at the school, “Mental health needs are steadily and sharply increasing. An October 2017 Columbia University study reveals that between 2000 and 2015, depression among Americans aged 12-17 rose four times faster than among anyone else in the population. A 2017 study by the Centers for Disease Control reveals that self-injury and suicide attempts are rising among American girls, with the sharpest increase among girls aged 10–14.”
So I ask: Rather than replace this 0.6 full-time-equivalent position with a 0.75 counselor and 1.0 dean of academics, would it not be a better use of resources to increase the social worker position to full time?
While the current budget's proposal to add more counseling services to boost kids' college and career readiness is a noble idea, it won't serve the imperiled kids. Moreover, many of us teachers of seniors at Leland & Gray were known, and I'm sure still are known, for helping kids with recommendations, college essays, school choices, and direction discernment because it is too time-consuming a job for our one counselor.
That's the kind of work I felt comfortable with and ready for, though - one-on-one with my students about life after Leland & Gray. These students have gone on to excellent schools and training programs and, I imagine, will continue to do so.
But what about the one in five whom Gunther-Mohr serves? We can't let the 20 percent of the school's student body whom she currently sees fall through the cracks harassed, neglected, abused with nowhere to turn.
Could teachers handle such needs? I have taught and worked with hundreds of kids, in school and in theater, and I've raised my own three sons, though not without challenge and drama.
But when something as delicate and vulnerable as the life of a young person - someone else's child - is at risk, I would always defer to the professionals, especially to our school social worker.
According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs - a theory we teachers all study - to be ready to learn, a student needs to be fed, clothed, sheltered, and safe. And a student needs a sense of belonging, of being loved.
In an age when even our president will spew over Twitter whatever comes to his head - from vitriol to love notes - the fragile developing persona of an at-risk teen needs more care and protection than ever before.