ATLANTA—A young girl, Anna (not her real name), is only in the first grade, but she’s already experienced significant trauma that has left psychological effects which cause her to act out in ways even she doesn’t understand.
She fights with classmates, tries to escape her teachers during recess, and damages school property. Her teachers have resorted to calling her parents every time she misbehaves, causing them to miss work to pick her up. Everyone is losing hope she will succeed in a traditional school environment.
That’s where school social worker Kasey Vermilya (B.S.W. ‘15) comes in.
Vermilya works for one of the 24 programs that make up the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, which provides integrated educational and therapeutic services to students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. On any given month, she may serve up to 25 children.
Vermilya entered college studying to be a teacher, but she changed course after her experience distributing food to individuals experiencing homelessness in a downtown Atlanta park.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I thought ‘This is wrong! I have to do more to help.’”
Vermilya began volunteering at the Central Outreach Advocacy Center, providing social services to Atlanta’s homeless population. Not long after, she transferred to Georgia State University to study social work.
After earning two degrees and serving two years as a community mental health care provider, Vermilya found herself back in the schools.
“By the time students come to me, they have gone through the continuum of special education care and exhausted all resources the local school can provide,” she said. “This program keeps many children out of residential facilities and allows them to remain in their communities.”
When Vermilya receives students who display aggression, elopement and property destruction, she assesses each of their needs from a holistic perspective and springs into the role of student advocate.
“As a social worker, I understand that people aren’t alone in the world. They are impacted by every system around them,” she said. “Sometimes educators solely focus on the child in the context of the classroom. I remind them that the student isn’t just ‘being bad,’ they actually have a lot going on at home.”
She also serves as the liaison between the school and the child’s parents, helping them understand their child’s disruptive behavior.
“Parents don’t always realize mental health issues in children can look like the disruptive behaviors that keep getting them into trouble,” she said. “So, I usually try to encourage them to get the student professional mental health care.”
But this, too, can present a problem, especially for families with limited resources.
“Sometimes it’s not as simple as saying, ‘This child needs therapy,’” she said. “Mom is working two fast-food jobs; they don’t have health insurance; and there aren’t sliding scale providers with appointments available…so now what?”
Vermilya continuously monitors policy related to mental health and education for students like hers, preparing to advocate for them when the opportunity arises.
“Any bill that’s passed or funding that’s cut is going to impact my students, future students and past students,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important that we get out there and vote.”
Story by Sumar Deen - Student (M.S. Clinical Mental Health Counseling, ‘21)