Oregon high school dropout rates are among the highest in the country, and our graduate rate is among the lowest in the nation. This crisis is shaped by multiple economic variables and contributed to by chronic absenteeism.
A leading factor that leads to complications in adult life is a lack of resources which address mental health issues and behavioral problems. School social workers are the professionals that are trained to address these issues, and we don't have enough of them, currently only 36 in the entire state.
A pair of bills pending in the Oregon Legislature would change that by directing the state education department to hire and place more social workers in our schools.
Today, Oregon falls well below the School Work Association of America recommended ratio of one master of social work (MSW) to 250 students. With Oregon's graduation rate among the lowest in the nation, school social workers are needed now more than ever. Research indicates, that 18 percent to 20 percent of students have mental issues significant enough to cause impairments in major life functions. However, only one in five students receives adequate professional help. Put simply, four out of five students with mental health issues go unaided. We can do better.
Students with disabilities, students of color, and students from low-income families are at greater risk for mental health challenges, and they are even less likely to receive the appropriate services. The need for more school social workers in our schools to improve the Oregon high school dropout rate is clear. School social workers serve as the frontline in the battle against debilitating mental health conditions not only for our schools, but also for our society.
Even when mental health or behavioral issues are recognized, teachers and school administrators often do not have the knowledge or training or time to address these issues. School social workers, however, do have a unique expertise and training in risk assessment and intervention, consultation and collaboration, cultural diversity, and systems theory among many others. The knowledge and training of a school social worker realizes the mental health needs of at-risk students, and can address them specifically. Schools often are one of the first places where mental health issues are recognized and addressed. In some cases school social workers may be the only mental health providers and counseling professionals available to students and their families, making their presence critical for increasing graduation rates.
A 1998 study revealed that school social workers improve teacher morale and significantly reduce problem behaviors such as bullying and drug use. This increases student productivity as students' mental and emotional needs can be addressed without taking teachers away from their primary role as educators. School social workers allow teachers to operate within their area of expertise, while offering a critical service that is necessary for any significant improvement in Oregon's graduation rates.
It has been proven that School Social Workers reduce absenteeism, identify mental illness in students, and reduce bullying and drug use in schools. Now it is time for the Oregon Legislature to put social workers back in our schools by passing HB 2174 or SB 278!
Kelly Skellenger is chair of the National Association of Social Workers' Oregon Legislative Committee. She lives in Portland.