Project Coach Leaders Engage with Social Work Students Around Issues of School Safety

On June 13th, Grady Ponder and Kam’Ron Reed, two Project Coach coaches were featured guests at a Smith College School for Social Work workshop entitled Advocating for Safe Schools: What Can We Do?.

The workshop was organized as a way to explore what rising social workers can do on the local and larger levels to address safety in schools. What better way to delve into these complex and painful questions than to frame the issues and then create space for dialogue. Gun violence has been once again prominent in the media since the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which has produced a groundswell of vibrant and courageous student activism. At the same time, workshop organizers and those grappling with this issue at Smith College as well as the School of Social Work (SSW) feel it is crucial to keep this conversation broad and deep, exploring all forms of violence in schools and the disproportionate effects of violence in communities of color.

As the workshop opened, SSW students were invited to consider what comes to mind when we hear the word “safety”? Participants had the opportunity to view “G is for Gun: The Arming of Teachers in America”, a documentary by local filmmakers Kate Way and Julie Akeret. This film introduced a district in Ohio that has chosen to arm and train school teachers as a response to a rise in high profile school shootings. After a brief Q&A with Way and Akeret, Coaches Grady and Kam joined a panel with Israel Rivera, a Community Organizer from OneHolyoke as well as Lisa Amato, former School Social Worker from Holyoke Public Schools. The panelists responded to the film and shared perspectives on - and experiences with – institutional racism within the K-12 system. Throughout the evening, Coaches Kam and Grady underscored the importance of genuine teacher-student relationships in order to navigate difficult school climates.

After getting to know Grady and Kam on the panel, Smith College SSW students had the opportunity to break out into smaller, more intimate conversations with the panelists to explore issues of safety, racism, school violence, and relationships. The Project Coach leaders brought invaluable insight, wisdom and hope to these conversations – and their impact on the Social Work students was profound. One student described the coach’s contributions as “providing a cultural narrative to future social workers with so much power, so much eloquence and tremendous passion and leadership.” Another social work student said that the opportunity to talk and think together with the teen coaches about school safety and the role of social workers in schools was a highlight of their summer term.

We look forward to future opportunities for dialogue between Smith College social work students, Project Coach leaders, and the wider community about the issues that are most pressing to our young people.

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