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Teacher Spotlight: Berendo’s Daisy Lazaro on helping students facing mental health crises and adverse life events while destigmatizing mental health issues for her school community

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | January 13, 2020

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This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

Daisy Lazaro, left. (Courtesy City Year Los Angeles)

Bullying, suicide, and other mental health crises are among the issues psychiatric social workers deal with daily as part of their job in schools. Their presence is needed now more than ever with rates of suicide and depression skyrocketing among young people and students across the nation experiencing trauma in the aftermath of a string of school shootings.

Only 35 percent of students with mental health concerns receive the care they need, according to the 2018 California Children’s Report Card, and school counselors face caseloads of 750 students to 1.

In her role as a psychiatric social worker at L.A. Unified’s Berendo Middle School, Daisy Lazaro helps students develop coping skills to deal with adverse situations. Beyond immediately serving young people, Lazaro says her larger goal is to destigmatize mental health issues in her central Los Angeles school community by informing and educating parents to understand them.

“In our communities, it is very much still a stigma and a lot of them are unwilling to engage their children in counseling at times,” she said.

Roughly 96 percent of Berendo’s 800 students are Latino, 26 percent are English learners and 95 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

While the need is great, Lazaro said, unfortunately, the psychiatric social worker position is not guaranteed at every school, every year.

“It all depends on school budgeting,” she said. “It depends on how many days of our position they can afford.”

Providing social-emotional support and giving back to the community has always been part of Lazaro’s life. She began working with students after she graduated from college, mentoring teens at Mendez High School in East L.A. through City Year Los Angeles, an education nonprofit that partners with public schools to help keep students in school and on track to graduate.

● Read more: Partnership Between Inglewood Unified and City Year L.A. Helping to Build Social-Emotional Learning, Student Success

Her two sisters, Jessica and Jennifer, also served as City Year corps members. Jennifer also became a psychiatric social worker and now works for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

“At City Year, I was able to kind of understand the whole school, whole child lens,” Lazaro said. “I was able to really connect one-on-one with students on the campus and work through a different perspective without actually teaching students in the classroom, but being able to build a lot of relationships and provide academic support.”

As a product of LAUSD, Lazaro, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and sociology from the University of Southern California, says she knew about the common challenges she would face working for the district but she has learned to look at the school system in a different manner.

“Schools deserve a psychiatric social worker at every campus to foster the whole child. I know in school the main component is academics, but a student cannot fully achieve academic success if other support systems are not in place.”

LA School Report asked Lazaro about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow innovative approaches take place in schools. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you share some of the struggles that students you work with have to face? 

I think just in general overall, we’re seeing an influx of our newcomers. So at the school, a lot of students are learning to adjust to new systems whether that’s educational, social and things of that sort. So it’s always helping them understand, aside from the language obviously, but it’s understanding different social norms in the United States. Aside from that, other things that we do see, unfortunately, it’s a lot of suicidal (thoughts), self-injury and things of that sort where students, unfortunately, don’t have the best positive coping skills to deal with a lot of the situations, whether they are going on at school or at home.

What’s something specific you’re doing to address trauma and how are you getting everyone in the school involved?

So sometimes during professional development, we will have a presentation about trauma-informed practices. So kind of best approaches with our students and I do want to say that, being here at Berendo, I do feel that a lot of our staff is very much trauma-informed and they’re very much aware of the different support systems here at school. So whenever they notice a behavioral issue or a student is crying or they notice a change in behavior, they know that we have two psychiatric social workers, so myself and my colleague, which actually she’s also a City Year alum as well, but we both provide the other appropriate support systems and provide referrals as needed based on the different experiences that students face.

Because we’ve seen many more tragedies such as school shootings, hostility against immigrant families, bullying, do you think schools are valuing more having mental health professionals on campus?

Definitely, I think I agree with that. It’s a little bit of a change in terms of accepting the role of us as psychiatric social workers on campus and a lot of the work that we do and the importance of the work that we do and just seeing how much more schools are willing to purchase our position. So all of that has to be taken in place. So our position is not a set staff position on every campus and there are some campuses that don’t have psychiatric social workers. So again, really with a lot of (students, it’s) not just even behavioral issues, but even death, grief and loss, things of that nature. (Schools) don’t have sometimes the full support system that, for example, (we do) here. We have two psychiatric social workers, there are academic counselors, we have a restorative justice coordinator and things of that sort. There’s an appropriate support system in place for different behaviors that the student is presenting and/or the student is facing as well of in terms of life events.

So, I do agree that a lot more school administrators are realizing about the importance that we have on campuses and how much more informed, not just our staff members can be, but also our students, bringing awareness to different mental health issues. For example, October is anti-bullying month. The previous month was suicide awareness. So bringing awareness to these different things and letting the students know that it’s OK to talk about these things and bringing awareness to them because it’s something that you would want them to understand.

● Read more: Third-grade special ed teacher Maria Duarte seeks to educate her Camino Nuevo school community about LGBTQ inclusion, encouraging students to become change agents

What do you think the school district, or even the state. could do better policywise to ensure students’ success? 

Touching a little bit on politics, we were also included in the whole (teacher) strike that happened in January. We were part of it. We strongly believe, and by we, I mean the union psychiatric social workers, believe that schools deserve a psychiatric social worker at every campus to foster the whole child. We need to have different support systems for students to be able to thrive, not just in school, but also be able to learn again. For example, coping skills for dealing with situations that are happening to them with their peers, with their classmates, at home or things of that sort, or just being able to openly talk about difficult topics with people that they can trust on campus.

● Read more: 200 Students, Parents & Educators Spent Two Years Thinking About How to Support the Whole Child. Here Are 6 Things They Found

How can parents support teachers and other school staff like you better? 

I think overall our parents, just being informed about our roles on campus and just being informed about the type of services that we can provide because a lot of times we’re confused with the school psychologist or we’re confused with the academic counselors. So again, it’s just defining that role and being able to help parents understand what type of roles we have here on campus. For the most part, our parents show us support by engaging with us, like if we’re trying to provide a referral or do a referral, showing up to our appointments, coming in, understanding the needs of the child … I think that’s the best way to support their child.

And again, a lot of our families are coming from different cultures where mental health is not discussed or talked about. So to them, it’s something completely new. I think just coming in with an open mind with us, coming in with an open mind to talk to us is always such a crucial component for us to do the work that we do. Sometimes we can get a resistant parent or a parent who doesn’t want any sort of type of services and it creates more barriers for us to support the student in that sense.

What do you think is the most rewarding about your job?

I think it’s just being able to see our students progress over the past couple of years. I’ve been, so again, this is my third year here, so I’ve met sixth-graders and they are now eighth-graders. So just seeing their progression. A lot of them don’t make (all) the progression that we would expect or that we would want, but they don’t get there, but it’s just really nice seeing the growth that they have (made). They’re more understanding of their behaviors or they’ve learned to manage (with) some of the negative coping skills. They’re able to openly talk to you and come to you like, “Miss, I have a problem” versus lashing out. They take preventative steps before doing anything or just even, when there are incidents, for example, bullying, we have a culture where our students will speak up. When anybody is, unfortunately, partaking in self-injury, students speak up and it creates this culture of everybody’s kind of looking out for each other, even though they might not know each other too well or (whether) they’re friends. A lot of times they are sworn into secrecy and they will still find it in themselves to be like, ‘No I care about this person. So I’m going to tell that this person is doing something that they probably shouldn’t do.’

What kind of goals do you have for this school year?

Well, definitely the nice thing is that we planned out for our monthly campaigns. So we have different campaigns coming up for each month. So the goal for me would be that we complete all of these campaigns because it’s a little bit cut off for Thanksgiving break and then December is only half (the month), we combine it as a grateful appreciation month. So just kind of providing that aspect of being inclusive because I know a lot of our families don’t celebrate whether that’s Thanksgiving or Christmas or things of that sort, but still learning to have gratitude towards certain situations or people in our lives. We’re looking into organizing whether that is some sort of gratitude or kindness events with the students, which we sort of did during suicide awareness (month). Just a lot of the students really appreciate it, drawing out hearts and writing positive comments or affirmations and giving them to other students or staff members on campus and things of that sort.

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