190208 Keith Davis 1

Keith Davis is the new superintendent of education of the city of Sheffield. [MATT MCKEAN/TIMESDAILY]

SHEFFIELD — Sheffield City Schools will soon employ a full-time social worker.

And it won't be happening a moment too soon, Superintendent Keith Davis said.

The school board voted last week to add the position.

The salary for the new position will align with the teacher salary matrix. According to Davis, the salary will be in the $40,000 range depending on degree and experience.

With applications being taken now, Davis said he expects to have someone in place in January in time for the second semester.

"It's a need we have," Davis said. "We have to make sure we're able to reach out to those kids who are struggling with emotional issues, not just at school but at home. So many times it carries over, and we'll be working with those families at home as well. There's just a great full-time need here."

Julie Box, the district's director of Student Services, said the school system has had a partnership in place with the Sheffield Housing Authority for help in the social services area.

Sheffield schools have also been in a counseling partnership with Riverbend Center for Mental Health one day a week, she said.

The district's new social worker will be concentrating strictly on the Sheffield campuses.

The social worker's office will be housed at the junior high/high school campus, but will serve all the schools as needed.

Box said school counselors are overwhelmed with their various duties, and help is needed given the issues that surround students today.

"All schools in the area are dealing with a very real mental health crisis that runs the gamut from bullying to problems at home to suicide and a variety of other issues that schools simply aren't equipped to deal with," Box said.

"The sheer number of cases we're seeing where students need that intervention, it really justifies the district having someone on staff who is trained in dealing with these struggling students.

"This is another layer of protection for our kids," Box said.

Sheffield student Zane Turner, a senior, said some students need help from trained individuals.

"We're in school seven hours a day and there's a lot of stress, especially if you don't have a healthy home life," Turner said. "Some students are supporting their families even, and there's the extra stress of pretty much running the family while keeping grades up. It bothers me when people disregard the stress on high school students."

Turner said he's dealt with his own anxiety and feels the additional pressure, as a leader in his school, to always go above and beyond and help others.

"The person in this new position will be able to help students prioritize and simply cope with everything most effectively," he said. "It's been really needed, and I'm grateful.

"I've seen students have absolute breakdowns in class and teachers just don't really know what to do," Turner said. "This is a positive move for our schools to have someone who can be there for the students."

Box said a few area school districts have social workers, including Florence, Lauderdale and Colbert counties. She said Sheffield's position will be structured much like Lauderdale County's.

The Sheffield school system has taken advantage of some training opportunities for personnel in dealing with mental health issues. Tracy Parker, guidance counselor at Sheffield Junior High, has gotten certified and will be holding upcoming training sessions for area school officials.

According to Box, part of the increase in issues school officials are seeing is due to the constant access to social media.

"These kids are putting stuff out there and can't take it back and then think their life is (ruined)," she said. "We have to be prepared to deal with this type of thing because it's happening a lot."

Sheffield senior Taja Thompson said never in her years in the system has there been a program in place with a daily focus on the mental health of students.

"Someone who can deal with what's going on, on the inside, is a tremendous need for our schools," Thompson said. "We were skeptical about getting this position because it seems that no one really thinks about the mental health of kids.

"It's not like a cut on a kid that the nurse takes care of. We're fine taking care of the physical problems, but now there will be someone to help take care of those mental health issues. And those issues are here, just like everywhere else. We've needed this a long time."

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