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.

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.”
  • Student leadership: “The thing that underpins this whole network — the purpose for it all — is to serve students; and to serve them, you have to involve them,” McDaniel said. And as far as I can tell, they do that in brilliant ways that ease the burden on school staff and law enforcement. One example is the Bullying Prevention Council of students elected entirely by their peers (one thing they did was write a skit to teach peers how to use the Sprigeo.com anonymous bullying reporting app the school system uses; they performed it at several schools), according to West Virginia Focus. Another example is a group of Peer Mediators, 7th and 8th graders recommended by teachers, elected by their peers and trained and supervised by staff. When drama happens online or offline and feelings get hurt or conflict develops, they sit down with younger peers, listen to what’s going on and help those involved come up with their own solutions rather than give advice. They’re learning leadership, school staff told writer Pam Kasey. A third remarkable example is Teen Court, for when more serious problems arise — serious violations of school rules, such as smoking on campus, cyberbullying, fighting (when it’s not an assault), etc. Students play the roles of defense attorney, prosecutor and jury members. Only the judge and bailiff are adults (attorneys out in the community and bailiffs from the county court volunteer their time for those roles). “It’s a diversionary program,” McDaniel said. “There’s some state legislation that allows us to do things in Teen Court that would otherwise go to the prosecutor. The prosecutor monitors it, can assign cases to Teen Court, but she stays out of the proceedings.” After an “offender” completes his or her sentence, s/he’s called to jury duty.
  • Flexible Classroom — or just “flex” for short. The setup works hand-in-hand with Handle with Care, providing for a flex counselor and a flex room in the school. At the county’s intermediate school for grades 3–5, everyone on staff has a walkie-talkie, and “any time a student has trouble, the adult in charge can call for an assist. A responder might relieve a teacher while she takes two students into the hallway to resolve a dispute. He might pull a belligerent student into the flex room for an hour or a day to get sorted out. Or she might just brainstorm with a kid who can’t think of an essay topic and is known to be in a fragile state.” Supportive not punitive is what it’s all about. Sometimes the room can be called “the SEALS room” for “social, emotional and academic learning,” a program that Morgan County’s just starting.” Again: supportive not punitive. Sometimes what happens in the SEALS room instead of homework is grief counseling or anger management group.
  • SBIRT and Alternative School: What’s called Flex at the elementary and intermediate schools is SBIRT and Alternative School at the high school level. While other schools have “behavior disorder programs,” Morgan County schools have SBIRT, which stands for Screening and Brief Intervention Referral and Treatment. The program helps in a variety of ways, from screening for mental health, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, trauma and self-harm to grief intervention. Alternative School gives students who can’t deal with mainstream school a break from it for a bit while helping them keep up with their academics. “It keeps putting them back in when they’re ready,” McDaniel said, “so they always have the opportunity to learn how to succeed in the mainstream environment, so the other kids learn how to deal with peers who are struggling, and so teachers learn how to work within a fluid, flexible system.” Most of the kids are dealing with various kinds of trauma. Along with academic support, a student might get vocational training, help from probation officers in how the juvenile justice system works and how to stay out of it, mindfulness training, and instruction from sexual assault response teams about consent and dating abuse. The support is customized to the students.
  • Morgan County Partnership — a youth-serving community nonprofit that provides all kinds of backup, including coordination of Teen Court; screening for drug abuse, depression, anxiety, self-harm and trauma; and counseling for all of those.
  • Multi-Disciplinary Investigative Team — any child sexual abuse case involving youth “that has come into the legal or Health & Human Resources domain” is investigated by a truly cross-functional team that can include representatives from the prosecutor’s office, the school system, the state police, DHHR, The Women’s Center and the Sexual Abuse and Response Team. “The first thing that happens” in a sexual abuse case, for example, “is the child goes to the Children’s Advocacy Center,” Gary said, where, in a comfy, home-like room, he or she is given a recorded forensic Interview. No more interviews or testifying follow — just whatever care is appropriate for that child.
  • Starting Points: an extensive network of donors when a family has a need for anything from a double stroller to a gasoline card.
  • Mental Health Matters: A Morgan County initiative involving multiple organizations and folding work on state legislation into the mix, MHM boils down to “more care for more kids, nearer to home for less money,” as McDaniel put it. If it passes, the legislation will allow for all the partners to provide “all the layers of care kids need: prevention services, counseling, mental health services in school, intensive outpatient, crisis stabilization, day-hospital (in hospital during the day, home at night).” It makes so much sense because being sent away to a facility somewhere else in the state, which is what has had to happen, is very expensive for the state and rarely good for the child, he added.
  • Everybody does suicide prevention: “Last year 90 kids were involved in some kind of self-harm,” McDaniel told me. So everybody’s involved in prevention. “We train 100% of our middle and high school students on suicide prevention,” he said, and school guidance people know how to use an adolescent suicide assessment protocol that was developed in West Virginia.

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

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