You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.


  • ePAPER

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks


Welcome to

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on

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.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Education

Atlanta school plan could transform city — or leave families stranded
Atlanta school plan could transform city — or leave families stranded

Atlanta is in the midst of a complex, expensive effort to improve the city’s worst schools. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, with the school board’s backing, has hired charter school groups to run some schools, while the system closes and consolidates others and spends tens of millions to improve other low-performing schools. But with...
More schools try yoga despite religious controversy
More schools try yoga despite religious controversy

Despite a backlash by some parents against yoga in a Cobb County elementary school, the ancient Eastern practice has been quietly embraced as a teaching aid by other metro Atlanta school districts. A federal lawsuit says Christian parents pressured Cobb leaders to rid Bullard Elementary School of yoga, triggering an administrative sanction against...
Ex-DeKalb Schools employee faces charges for striking student
Ex-DeKalb Schools employee faces charges for striking student

A former DeKalb County School District employee is facing charges after he allegedly struck a student at McLendon Elementary School in an incident in April, the third incident involving employee misconduct to surface this week. Frederico Bryant, 40, resigned from the school district on May 12, school district officials said responding to an email...
Gwinnett high school seniors help others while exploring potential career paths
Gwinnett high school seniors help others while exploring potential career paths

Shiloh High School’s graduation ceremony is set for Sunday, but for a group of seniors, they can also lay claim to being trailblazers on their campus.   The 16 students completed the International Baccalaureate Career-Related Programme. Shiloh was the first Gwinnett school to implement the program. The students gained experience in...
Harvard-bound DeKalb grad looks ahead because immigrant parents left all behind
Harvard-bound DeKalb grad looks ahead because immigrant parents left all behind

In a way, Yusuf Azizi going to Harvard is his parents’ American dream realized. The 17-year-old, who graduated as Cross Keys High School’s valedictorian Thursday, said his success is fueled by a decision his parents made to leave Afghanistan and sacrifice promising careers to make a better life in the U.S. for a family they had yet...
More Stories