- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

LAS VEGAS (AP) - A sweeping statewide initiative to curb bullying in Nevada schools has crossed a major milestone after the Clark County School District, the state’s largest, filled all of its more than 100 new social worker positions.

Statewide, 139 social workers and supervisors are in place as of early May, and 25 positions remain unfilled. Officials said the new staff members have so far led workshops on how to identify unhealthy relationships, taught anger management techniques and helped students who are returning to school after time in a mental health institution.

“I can’t imagine not having them now just because of the positive impact they’ve had,” said Robert Mars, principal at Silverado High School in Las Vegas, which brought on two social workers about two months ago. “It’s better than what I expected.”

Gov. Brian Sandoval spearheaded an initiative last year to improve the social climate in schools after meeting with the families of three middle school students who suffered severe bullying, including a 13-year-old girl who took her own life. The girl’s father, Jason Lamberth, and other parents testified before lawmakers who eventually authorized a new state-level Office for a Safe and Respectful Learning Environment.

Schools deemed to have the unhealthiest climate, as judged by student surveys, get top priority in landing social workers, and one to four have been placed at each eligible campus.

“These people should not be in an office,” said Eddie Ableser, director of the state’s anti-bullying office. “They need to be out there with the kids - at lunch, at recess, being a resource to the whole climate of the school.”

Sandoval initially called for $36 million to place a social worker in every school, but lawmakers halved that request. The Nevada Legislature approved about $6 million this school year to pay for the social workers, and is expected to decide in June whether to release an additional $11 million next school year to continue the effort.

Other elements in the Legislature’s anti-bullying effort include a new law that holds school employees responsible if they fail to act on bullying, and requires them to notify parents and begin an investigation within two days of receiving a report of bullying. The state has also set up a 24-hour hotline to take bullying reports, which can also be submitted online or via text message.

Proponents testified that school districts in the past have been slow to act on bullying reports or kept parents in the dark about incidents - perhaps because school employees feared the parents or believed bullying was a normal part of growing up.

Not all lawmakers supported the initiative, which passed 36-6 in the Assembly and 18-1 in the Senate. Some said the definition of bullying was too broad considering it puts school employees’ jobs on the line.

Others raised concerns that it would be difficult to get so many trained social workers in place in a short period of time- a scenario that’s turned out to be true in some parts of the state.

Ableser said districts in Douglas, Churchill and Washoe counties haven’t yet hired all their social workers, and noted it’s notoriously difficult to recruit professionals to some of the far-flung areas of the state. His office is pushing for changes in the state’s social worker licensing process, which he said doesn’t have consistent standards for reviewing potential candidates and uses a case-by-case approach.

Ableser said that method gives too much uncertainty to out-of-state applicants and deters them from moving to Nevada to take a school social worker job.

“That has been a number one challenge,” he said.

That’s to say nothing of finite state education money. Lawmakers in the future could cut the money if budgets get tighter or they decide it’s not essential.

Mars, for his part, thinks the new social workers are critical. They’ve filled the gap left because Silverado’s school psychologist is only on campus one day a week and its five guidance counselors already have full schedules serving 2,300 students. They’ve also been able to help students living in unstable, rent-by-the-week motels or coping with tumultuous family situations.

“I think it’s something that’s needed throughout the country,” he said.

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