New Staff Provide Student Support at WAHS

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WAHS School Social Worker Alanah Horning. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Richard Holmes is Western Albemarle High School’s new Safety Coach, a position that was created in the wake of the School Board’s decision to remove School Resource Officers (Albemarle County Police Officers who worked in middle and high schools providing school security) at the end of the 2019-20 school year. Eight new Safety Coaches were hired by the school division over the summer, and Holmes’ mix of prior experience plus familiarity with the Crozet community made him a good fit for the WAHS job. 

“I worked at the Y in Crozet Park and that’s where I really got to know a lot of the community, and a lot of kids from Western as well,” said Holmes. Prior to that, he had worked in law enforcement and corrections, both of which drove his interest in helping at-risk populations. 

“I wanted to make a bigger impact with the community, so I became a police officer in the town of Orange and did that for three years,” he said. “I loved it. I dealt with a lot of juveniles during that time and I wanted to do more with the aspects of mental health, because so many kids suffer from family issues and sometimes they’re just in a dark spot. So, I think this role [at WAHS] was basically tailored for me, as it deals with the knowledge of law enforcement from a safety point of view, and it deals with the kids and personal issues they may have, and all of it is extremely important.”

Holmes is enthused about combining his interest in supporting students’ mental health with his outgoing personality. “Before I was an officer in Orange, I worked in a corrections facility, which was good from the perspective of getting to know and talk to people,” he said. “That’s the aspect I love about any job—I love to talk to anyone. My wife taught me best—she says people aren’t bad, they just make bad decisions, and it’s true. A lot of [people in corrections facilities] are suffering from a lack of education, and that’s when I really saw the true effect of mental illness and the importance of mental health.”

Sustained attention to a person’s problem is important, says Holmes. “My drive is actually to help people, in general,” he said. “I know it’s a clichéd thing to say, but it’s more than just helping people one time. The thing is, once you help someone, what’s the next plan? It’s so important to follow up, make a goal, keep reaching out to these kids and checking in on how they’re doing, because one thing affects another thing. If a kid is not happy at home, then maybe the education portion of his life suffers, and then another portion suffers. It’s all related.”

WAHS Safety Coach Richard Holmes. Photo: Lisa Martin.

While past School Resource Officers (SRO’s) at area high schools typically described much of their time as spent talking with and encouraging students, they were also expected to handle situations involving drug use, vandalism, and fighting. Holmes can appreciate both sides of the SRO debate. “I know someone in uniform can be an intimidating presence for some, and comforting for others,” he said. “I know there was a student here who said he was nervous now that there would be no officer here, and that’s totally understandable. 

“We have good relationships with local law enforcement—they still drive through here on patrol, help out with traffic, come to football games—and if we need them, they are close by,” he continued. “But in this new role we will focus on restorative justice and preventative measures.” Unlike SRO’s, Safety Coaches will be unarmed, and Holmes counts on vigilance and preparedness to deal with even a worst-case scenario. “We have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he said. “We have a crisis team to handle situations, and people who are trained to help anyone who is hurt, and we’re touching base with every single kid. My thought process is not ‘if’ but ‘when,’ and that’s what keeps me ahead of the game.”

Having coached youth basketball, flag football, and softball, Holmes enjoys being around young people and hearing their viewpoints. “I have not seen anything that makes me remotely think that this school is dealing with any racial issues,” he said. “Now, it may seem like that to me, but a student may see things in a different light. Again, it’s important to talk to the students. They are going to be kids and make mistakes, but it’s better to make that mistake and to learn from it now, rather than later. 

“My primary responsibility is going to be safety for the students, and that means making sure that the school building is secure as well as ensuring that students feel safe inside it,” said Holmes. “Being proactive, as much as possible, is the key. We have teachers who are part of our security team, and they walk the halls as well. The biggest thing is making sure that these kids know they can come to me if they have a concern or if they see something. The students see a lot and sometimes all you have to do is ask. That will take time—you can rush paperwork, but you can’t rush relationships.”

Alanah Horning is WAHS’s new School Social Worker, and her responsibilities will encompass both student support and family outreach. “I believe the title is technically ‘mental health professional/school social worker,’ but we’ve kind of taken my role more towards school social worker with a mental health specialty,” said Horning. 

After graduating from James Madison University with a degree in social work, she worked as a foster care worker, then at Region Ten as a therapeutic day treatment counselor for almost three years, followed by a stint as a social worker at UVA Hospital. “Then I got my Masters in Social Work and came here,” she said. In addition to a Masters Degree, applicants for the school positions had to also have a license or certification in counseling, and Horning is a QMHPC, or Qualified Mental Health Professional (child-specific).

Albemarle County Public Schools hired one new social worker for every school in the division this year, and Horning was pleased to be offered the WAHS job. “I really like working with teens, so I was hoping for a high school,” she said. “I appreciate their ability to engage verbally—I feel like they’re able to understand their own mental health and verbalize what they’re feeling more so than younger kids.”

The 24 social worker positions were funded by $2.3 million from the division’s $11 million American Rescue Plan Act allocation, which is a one-time source, so they were advertised as one-year positions for the 2021-22 school year. The school division will have to consider whether and how to fund them going forward in the next budget cycle. “We, of course, do not know what the funding profile will look like later this year, but I know there is strong interest and support for mental health services among School Board members,” said ACPS spokesman Phil Giaramita. “If the program shows significant benefits, there will be support for its inclusion.”

“It can be scary, the possibility of only having one year in a position,” said Horning, “but I feel as though Western just really values mental health, and they put an emphasis on finding as much support as they can for the students.” As her role has already proven useful at WAHS, she’s hoping the support will be valued and continued.

“I’ve definitely taken it within my role to do more outreach with families,” she said. “If I’m working with a student and there’s been an identified need in the home, I might let the student know that I’d like to reach out to the family, as it could be great for us be all be on the same page. If there’s a gap in communication then it’s often harder to continue success for students, and I’d like to be that bridge.”

Her job can vary from day to day based on student needs. “I meet with students every day, and I get a new referral almost every day, whether it’s from a teacher or one of the school counselors or the admin team,” she said. “It might be that there’s a student who has been truant and they need a connection with home, so we try to figure out how to connect with them, how to get them back into the school. I also do home visits.”

“Some students might be dealing with some anxiety about coming back [to school in person], and we [staff] try to think about what does that look like, and how do we ease them back in? So, I’m a support for those students and am helping them learn some coping skills. Or there could be home issues that might be reflecting negatively on the student here at the school.”

Horning identified her interest in helping young people early on. “When I was in high school, I remember overhearing a conversation between a school counselor and a student—they were working through what classes the student would need to graduate—and I was intrigued by idea of being able to sit down with someone and really help make goals and chart a path. I really enjoy being able to help people succeed in a school setting because that often reflects in the other systems in their life.”

Horning says she gets a form of “compassion satisfaction,” from her work, a fulfilled feeling common among first responders, medical professionals, and regular helpful people from providing healing, encouragement, and support to those facing anguish. “I let the students know what I’m here for, and I let them drive what level of support they need or feel comfortable with,” she said. “I don’t want them to ever feel that I’m trying to control their situation in school, so we build up a little bit of rapport and trust so they know they can talk with me if they feel like talking.” 

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Lisa Martin
Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.

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