Schools face social worker shortage amid unprecedented student trauma

Reopening Schools

NEW YORK CITY — After nearly a year of unprecedented pressure on the mental health of students in New York City and nationwide, a return to schools features a new spotlight on dealing with that trauma.

As a social worker in New York City public schools, Vanessa Velez’ title comes with a stigma. She said students think she’s not here to help them, but to judge them.

As students prepare to return to school for in-person learning, Velez told PIX11 she has her work cut out for her, as students are in the middle of dealing with pandemic-related trauma while there is a clear shortage of social workers.

According to the department of education, so far this year, five students took their own life, compared to four students in all of last year.

In the New York City public school system, there are about 1,300 full-time social workers serving nearly 1 million students.

Police personnel in schools top 5,000 , almost 4 times the number of social workers.

Right now there’s a $20 million plan to hire 475 new school safety officers.

Civil rights and student advocacy groups are calling on the mayor and police commissioner to cancel those plans and use the funds for mental and emotional support for the city’s 960,000 students.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said there has not been a final decision made on hiring school safety agents — and parents will tell you they want both mental health and physical safety for their kids.

Velez said historically Black and Latino youth, which is the majority of the population in the New York City school system, have been criminalized, and seeing a police presence rather than mental health providers when you walk through school tours sets a different tone, which students internalize.

The department of education is promising students will be screened for signs of trauma and be helped by a person they trust starting in the fall.

The question is, after those screenings, will they have the resources to meet student needs.

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