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Amid Threats, School Social Workers Help Foster Welcoming Environments


Thursday, January 13, 2022   

This week saw a Duluth high school go on lockdown because of a threat received by authorities. School social workers across Minnesota say with campus safety still a big priority, they're carrying out approaches to make their environments less ominous and more welcoming.

The latest threat follows last month's nationwide social media scare on TikTok, as well as a deadly school shooting in Michigan.

Sarah Mages - licensed social worker at the St. Peter Middle School - said students have increasingly dealt with more anxiety over the past couple of decades, with threats of violence playing a part.

She said emotional connections between staff and students are important.

"We've just found that if there's that connection," said Mages, "kids are able and willing to talk to those adults because they feel like they're cared for."

Her district has conducted surveys with high-school students and fifth-grade students, asking if they feel supported by at least one adult in their building. In both surveys, three quarters of students said they do.

Social workers in other districts say home visits and crisis-intervention teams are also helpful approaches that complement standard security measures.

Prior Lake High School Licensed Social Worker Nancy VanHorne said social media messages often blend the outside world with campus environments.

If those scenarios make a student not want to come to school, her staff might visit them at home to make them feel reassured or accompany them on campus.

"You know, I had a student come in before students got here one morning," said VanHorne, "and we kind of walked the building and we talked through some anxieties she was having."

Kathy Kimani is the director of the Office of School Support for Saint Paul Public Schools. She said de-escalation efforts are important when trouble arises.

But she said there are other important ways to foster a safe environment, including social and emotional learning.

"We might do things like implement some restorative practices," said Kimani, "which would start off as students actually sitting in a circle, building community, getting to know one another. "

All three of these professionals, members of the Minnesota School Social Workers Association, said the pandemic has added to the anxiety students are feeling.

Disclosure: Minnesota School Social Workers Association contributes to our fund for reporting on Budget Policy & Priorities, Children's Issues, Education, Mental Health. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

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