Gwinnett school counselor: Students “are my world”

An Alcova Elementary School student walked into counselor Amy O’Neal’s office shortly after classes started on a recent morning to ask a question.

“Can I have a snack?,” the boy shyly asked.

O’Neal smiled and pointed to a purple box, from which the boy grabbed one of several small, plastic bags of Fruit Loops.

O’Neal’s job duties include far more than organizing career day. She manages a pantry where food is kept for needy students, makes visits to parents whose children are struggling academically, helps students dealing with cyberbullying, listens to kids coping with the death of a loved one and alerts authorities if she suspects or learns a child is being abused. She’s been a school counselor for 12 years.

Gwinnett County’s school system this month named O’Neal its elementary school counselor of the year. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed O’Neal this week. Here are some excerpts.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you see from a social standpoint?

A: One of the biggest challenges that we see lately is we see social media has really impacted every aspect of our children. We expected it would happen in middle school and high school. But we are a technology-driven generation, and we are helping them navigate being on a computer … What happens when somebody texts you that makes you feel sad. How do you interact? We talk to parents about the different sites that kids are exposed to. They may not always know.

Q: You’ve talked about helping students deal with the loss of a loved one …

A: Oh, yes. When they're not focused on learning because they're grieving the loss of a loved one, they can't function that day. So I give them the tools. I let them come down and talk a little bit. They write in their journal. They let it go. They keep whatever's (said) in here here. They have a worry box. They write down what their worries are. They leave it in the worry box and they go back to class and let their teachers keep an eye on them. If they feel like coming back again, they come back throughout the day. But I let them know you have the tools to make it through.

Q: Do you ever read what’s in (the journals and the worry box) and if you see something that may be troubling, do you reach out to law enforcement?

A: The kids that are journaling here are journaling for issues that happened at home and at school. Anything that I see is going to harm themselves or if they've been harmed, I definitely have to report that. I'm a mandated reporter, just as any teacher in this building is. I train the teachers here every year about being a mandated reporter. So when I do have a child that has a cry, I do make that (referral to the Department of Family & Children's Services) and I take that very seriously. I tell the students what you say here is going to be confidential, unless it's harming you or someone else.

Q: The percentage of Gwinnett students receiving free and reduced-price lunch is increasing. How do you all help these students?

A: We had 61.5 percent of our students (eligible for) free and reduced lunch at Alcova. We get community support to help those families who are in need … We get an outpouring of community families who help. It's totally anonymous. They don't know who the family is. We let the parents come up and pick up those gifts.

Q: How do you cope with some of the things you deal with?

A: I do a lot of debriefing at the end of the day with a counselor partner that may not be here at Alcova, or I'll debrief with my administration. And then I have a great family support at home. They know what school's all about and I can kind of let that go … Is it hard? Yeah. Do I cry many nights? I do. But I know (the students) are my world.