True school safety: A model in W.V.

In Morgan County, W.V., great need is being met with great cooperation — and care. County residents have created a web of youth-focused programs supporting kids in and out of school. I’ve been hearing about the growth of this amazing web of care since I met Gary McDaniel, a clinical social worker and one of its co-creators, at a bullying prevention conference in New Orleans several years ago, and increasingly inspired with each update. Here’s a snapshot of what they’re doing.…

Picture a raindrop-studded spider web right after a spring rain. Now picture something that beautiful and simple but much stronger — what’s been called a “network of compassion” — in and around the seven schools in Morgan County, W.V., a county where 70% of the young people now live in poverty. The economic conditions aren’t improving — last year that figure was 60%, 10 years ago 30%.

In the only state in the U.S. that’s losing population, schools are struggling with a dwindling tax base, increasing unemployment, growing heroin abuse and a youth mental healthcare system in crisis. But in a county that has seen some of the worst of these conditions, all parts of the youth-serving ecosystem — from schools to social services to law enforcement to juvenile justice — are measurably turning the crisis around in a “countywide experiment in compassionate care [that’s] holistic, affordable, and replicable,” reported Pam Kasey in West Virginia Focus magazine. “And it’s gone on long enough that we can just start to see the difference it’s making.”

“At the hub of it all,” says Gary McDaniel, a clinical social worker for Morgan County’s schools who has been working on growing this web for over a decade, “is relationships.” Relationships between people especially, but also roles, skill sets and programs — all about serving children. I asked him recently if this comes from some sort of county-wide vision or game plan, and what I heard him say was no, not really. It comes from “a philosophy that’s prevalent in the world of clinical social work.” It’s called ‘Ecosystems Theory.’ I’m not just helping kids one at a time,” McDaniel said. “I’m looking at a community and what it does well and what it can do better and how all of it comes to bear on supporting a kid I’m working with” — nutrition, family, medical care, school, etc. All the parts are equally deserving of attention.”

‘Handle with Care’

An example is the county’s award-winning Handle with Care program — a small tweak in one law enforcement procedure that’s a huge help for kids affected. McDaniel explains that, when police make a drug bust in a home, sometimes there are children there, and they can be traumatized by the guns, yelling and physical force sometimes involved. Then the next day those kids are expected to go into school, sit quietly in a classroom and take a spelling test or something. And that’s often after a chaotic, hour-long school bus ride. Now, because of Handle with Care, the arresting officer makes sure McDaniel or the police officer assigned to the kids’ school gets the names of any kids who were present in the home when the arrest happened — before those kids go to school the next morning. That way, the kids’ teachers know about the trauma their students have been through. So if a student’s struggling to focus in class, needs extra bathroom breaks, someone to listen or just time to himself, etc., the teacher knows to handle that student with care.

County Sheriff Shambaugh and McDaniel receiving an award for Handle with Care from then-State’s Attorney Booth Goodwin

That’s just one node in the student-serving network, each program supporting all the others designed to support kids. I asked McDaniel if he thought we could break things down into in-school and out-of-school programs, and I got the sense that this was way too binary, since the services are for kids wherever they are. There’s all kinds of overlap.

“Community program partners come into school and work with our kids a lot,” he said, mentioning people from Community Mental Health, Juvenile Probation, the Sexual Abuse Response Team, the Sheriff’s Department, master Gardeners (helping students design the school garden and grow food for the school’s nutrition program), local retirees helping with homework and “being a listening ear,” community arts organizations helping with school performances, solar energy experts providing vocational training and donating solar capacity to the schools. “It’s a bit of an Appalachian thing, but our [school] doors are always open,” McDaniel added.

Here’s just a partial list of other gems in the Morgan County Schools web of programs:

  • The nutrition baseline: There’s no learning if the learners are hungry. So nutrition for students in Morgan County has three key pieces: 1) Every student gets free breakfast and lunch, a program that includes farm-to-table food and greenhouses at schools (too much overhead goes into trying to figure out who gets what; it’s much more cost-effective to feed everybody breakfast and lunch, removing any stigma for students who stand out); 2) weekend nutrition (about 20% of students get a backpack every weekend so they have nutritious, easy-to-prepare nutrition provided entirely through a weekly volunteer effort by members of civic groups, churches, and the Board of Education who shop and stuff plastic bags that go to each school, where food is discreetly put into a nondescript backpack to make sure no one knows what a “free food bag” looks like); and 3) McDaniel’s personal favorite, he said, The Sardine Club, an entirely student-made club that started a few years ago when he and a principal opened a can of sardines in a school lunchroom and ate them on crackers. Some 4th-graders wanted to try them, liked them, got permission slips from their parents, started a club, and by the end of the year Gary was bringing cans of sardines and packages of crackers to 120 students in grades 3–5 (who get “all that protein and omega-3 fatty acids that are great for brain development”) every week. A local biochemist now donates $2,500 a year so that “all of our 3rd, 4th and 5th graders who want sardines get some, with a little left over for t-shirts.”

It’s inspiring, right? In Morgan County, great need has definitely fueled great care — practical, compassionate, transformative innovation. But is it as replicable as reporter Kasey says?

What makes it replicable — the key to it all McDaniel says — is “the concept of ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘yes, but.’ It’s what brings and ties all those organizations’ agendas together — what keeps us from dissolving down into turfism.” It works like this, he explained: Someone describes an idea or program and, instead of saying, “Yes, but check this out” it’s more like, “’Yeah, that’s great, and let me tell you about this other cool thing that might fit really well with your thing,” McDaniel explained. Addition not subtraction. “That’s how it becomes a web. If you only do one thing, all you’re going to have is a silo. A Web is stronger because everybody’s involved and has ownership.” And everybody’s worthy of being heard. Respect is modeled and expressed. And what community wouldn’t want to replicate a systemic, restorative way to reduce disruption and harm, improve school climate and grow young citizens’ success?

It can take time to build out the web, but one thing leads to another. “It’s so simple,” McDaniel suggested, “just being curious and staying open to seeing how this thing will unfold. Sometimes you have to be ok with a little confusion for awhile.” But what helps with the confusion is simple too: “This is healthy child development we’re supporting, here.”

This piece was originally posted in Anne Collier’s blog at NetFamilyNews.org.

Youth advocate; blogger, NetFamilyNews.org; founder, The Net Safety Collaborative

Youth advocate; blogger, NetFamilyNews.org; founder, The Net Safety Collaborative