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West Orange Times & Observer Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019 7 months ago

Social workers offer help to OCPS students

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From mental health to the daily stresses of life, high school social workers provide support to students in need.
by: Troy Herring Sports Editor

The daily grind of being a high school student can take its toll physically, mentally and emotionally. 

The stress of keeping up one’s grades or dealing with peer pressure is there at all times, not to mention all the non-school related stressors that can arise.

With all those possible factors into place, it’s no surprise some students see their grades — and personal well-being — take a hit, and that’s why the leaders at Orange County Public Schools set out to helps students by placing a full-time social worker in every high school in the county.

Before the move by OCPS, a single social worker served multiple school. Now, each school has its own.

“The presence of a social worker at schools is critical,” Olympia High school social worker Megan Peralta said. “Students need to know there is someone on campus who they can express their deepest thoughts with and not be judged for it. Students need to know that someone genuinely cares about their well-being. 

“Once a relationship is formed between a social worker and student, the results of the student that the social worker is able to notice is extraordinary,” she said.

Peralta has worked as a child protective investigator — investigating allegations of abuse, neglect and maltreatment — and victim advocate. She also served as a social worker at a hospice facility.

The varied nature of her background is perfect for her role at Olympia. Each student who walks through her door is unique and brings his or her own  specific situation.

“Within the time that I have been working in the field of social work, I have learned that there is never going to be a daily routine,” Peralta said. “And if there is, it is hard to commit to. No day is the same — this continues to hold true with my position as a high school social worker. Each day holds something new.”

The same holds true for Valerie Homidas — Ocoee High School’s social worker.

“Our ‘routines’ vary based on the needs of our students,” Homidas said. “We can come in and plan certain tasks, but if and when a crisis occurs, we stop and prioritize that student’s needs as No. 1 due to it requiring immediate attention.”

Avoiding crises is ultimately one of the most important jobs for social workers at high schools around the county — and around the country — and the best way of avoiding them is early prevention. By understanding the underlying cause, social workers can work with students in different ways. 

“The presence of a social worker at schools is critical. Students need to know there is someone on campus who they can express their deepest thoughts with and not be judged for it."

— Megan Peralta, Olympia High School social worker 

When students are sent to social workers such as Peralta and Homidas it’s usually because they are struggling behaviorally, emotionally or posing a threat to themselves or others. Once they’re in the social worker’s office, that’s when the talking begins — which can be difficult for many students, Peralta said. 

“In general, I find that common problems that many students have are being able to explain what they are actually feeling and their behaviors,” Peralta said. “Initially, students feel that if they disclose the wrong thing, they’ll get into trouble and their parent/guardian will be told. Once I explain my role and the confidentiality piece, they often find themselves feeling more relaxed to speak with me. However, I am sure to inform them that I am required to break confidentiality if they are to disclose harming themselves or others.”

During the sessions, social workers have the chance to sit down and get to know the students — and better understand what is causing issues.

Often, there is not one single cause that prevails, Homidas said. 

“The common problems that I come across are students that do not have a healthy and positive support system,” Homidas said. “Many students do their best in school, but also have to face personal difficulties, undiagnosed mental illnesses and trauma that they should not have to cope with alone.”

From there, social workers can work with not only the students but also with parents and others to address the problem and work toward solutions.

Sometimes Peralta asks students to practice breathing exercises they can use during a stressful time as a way of collecting themselves. She does her best to educate parents on her role and responsibilities.

Although there is no panacea when it comes to mental health, social workers such as Peralta and Homidas are focused on offering students a place where they can get the help that they need.

“I aim for progress — not perfection,” Homidas said. “I focus on the positive behaviors that a student displays — figure out what motivates them as an individual.”

Troy Herring is the sports editor at the West Orange Times and Windermere Observer. He is a graduate of the University of Mount Olive (BS '12) and the University of Alabama (MA '16)....

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