Parents, Students Fight Avon School District's Elimination of Social Workers

Parents will have the opportunity to speak on the subject of substituting social workers with more school psychologists at a public hearing Wednesday night.

Avon parents say it's unthinkable school administrators would decide to remove all social workers from their schools and replace them with school psychologists.

At a special school board meeting Wednesday night, upset parents and students lashed out and called the decision dangerous. The Board of Education held the meeting at Avon High School, after concerned citizens delivered on online and paper petition protesting the move.

"It's damaging. It's going to leave a lot of students underserved," said Avon parent Laurie Vaillancourt-Pugsley, who started the paper petition.

The district says they're substituting social workers with additional school psychologists and that it'll provide a more comprehensive service, but critics say the move is indefensible. 

"Essentially by getting rid of social workers you're cutting off the legs of the psychologists," Avon parent Catherine Lewis said.

Avon parent Sarah Calatayud started an online petition to get a public hearing after many parents complained they weren't given the chance to provide input. Many parents gave feedback in the petitions that they felt social workers provided a necessary support system and wanted a say in the decision.

"Many parents are already concerned and upset by the school district's decision to eliminate the 'academic level' (I.e. (sic) the lowest level, in terms of academic challenge) in the high school. For kids with developmental disabilities and other behavioral health challenges, this is of great concern. Many parents feel that this decision was also made without adequate expert and parental input," Calatayud wrote in an email to NBC Connecticut. "So this social worker elimination decision came on the heels of that. Many parents in Avon feel they're not being included in this process and that the school district administration is making these decisions unilaterally without enough transparency about their process."

The Avon town clerk's office had to verify the signatures in order to determine that the petition garnered the threshold amount to require a public hearing.

Historically, Avon schools have employed both school psychologists and social workers.

"It's been vital for me. I maintained honor role throughout high school, but to pretend I haven't popped into the social worker and utilized those services, I would be lying," said Marinna Binkowski, who recently graduated from Avon High School.

Binkowski says she doubts she would have graduated without a school social worker's help.

"I don't know if I would be alive without one," said Binkowski.

But materials submitted to the school board from the central office said in part that "school psychologists can administer intellectual, projective and achievement assessments as well as conduct both individual and small group counseling" whereas social workers "can only perform individual and group counseling which is also completed by the school counselors we maintain on staff."

So, Director of Pupil Services Kelly Grant spearheaded a plan to keep school psychologists and school counselors but to eliminate social workers from staffing, according to the board materials. Avon schools currently have five school psychologists and under the plan the district will hire three more, according to board materials.

Neither Grant nor Avon Superintendent Gary Mala could be immediately reached for comment. The school board members and Mala declined to speak on camera.

But Grant wrote a letter to the Avon community May 29 assuring parents that eliminating school social workers would not reduce services to students.

"The decision to eliminate the school social worker positions in Avon has not been made lightly nor without a great deal of thought and consideration," Grant wrote in her letter. "Moreover, the notion that Avon does not value social workers could not be farther from the truth. While we, indeed, recognize what school social workers bring to the table, we are concerned that there is still more to do at a district level to address the whole child within the context of the school setting – especially at the earlier stages of challenge. We are interested in looking at the intersection of the academic and social forces that pull at our students from all angles on a day to day basis in an attempt to better understand the interplay between these forces."

She went on to say that "substituting school psychologists for social workers arose out of recent conversations related to the reorganization occurring at Avon High School and in an an effort to articulate what could be done differently to meet the needs of students who may be more correctly characterized as curriculum challenged than they are as educationally or emotionally disabled."

"Many students, who have previously felt supported and performed at optimal levels throughout their earlier school years, end up being referred for accommodation plans and special education services after they enter high school and report feeling anxious or compromised in their abilities to meet the academic and social demands," Grant said. "Our goal is to utilize staff in the most efficient and effective ways that support the academic, social, and emotional development of all students. While it never feels good to play the value of one professional over the other, our intent, here, is to make our mental health practitioners more versatile in their approaches."

She said that a "well-trained certified school psychologist is certainly capable of addressing the mental health needs of student via the provision of individual and small-group counseling, support groups, and crisis intervention." The district hopes to "engage with students early on" instead of only responding when students "are in crisis" to enhance support to students "with academic, social, emotional, and behavioral challenges," Grant said.

"Change is always difficult, especially for our most vulnerable students. It is with these students in mind, though, that this proposal is being advanced to insure that we are doing all that we can, and should, do to reach out to those students who are disenfranchised, disengaged, and disenchanted with school," Grant said. "We can no longer afford to respond by referring students for evaluations and assigning diagnostic labels; the focus, instead, needs to be placed on identifying and addressing the needs in a systematic, unified way that provides students with the learning opportunities that they require to build skills that will lead them to developing into fully-functioning and emotionally healthy individuals."

Vaillancourt-Pugsley sees the roles of school psychologists and social workers as distinct and said both are needed in Avon schools. She is calling for the decision to be reversed and resolved by the time schools start up again in the fall. 

"While school psychologists can counsel, it is really the social workers that are expertly trained to help all in the student population (because not just special education students reach out to them, but those feeling anxiety and pressure within the general education population as well)," Vaillancourt-Pugsley said. "They have a higher level of training and expertise to be able to help the students; and they have the outreach capacity beyond the school setting. School psychologists excel at what they do within the schools. Social Workers have reach beyond the school."

Many at the meeting Wednesday night said the move lacks understanding of the importance social workers play in the school setting.

While one board member said she felt like it was something that needed to be reconsidered, most still believed it was the right decision.

There is no word if the issue will be brought back up for consideration anytime soon.

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