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

After a retirement, APS isn’t hiring new executive director of safety
After a retirement, APS isn’t hiring new executive director of safety

Atlanta Public Schools has assigned the duties of its former executive director of safety and security to three other administrators.  Marquenta Sands Hall retired from the executive director position on June 30, according to district personnel records. A school district spokesman said the job has not been posted and instead the duties &ldquo...
Spelman College, Ford Motor Co. partner to help first-generation students
Spelman College, Ford Motor Co. partner to help first-generation students

Spelman College and the Ford Motor Company Fund on Tuesday announced a partnership to help more of the college’s first-generation students complete school. Ten rising juniors who are first-generation Spelman students will be paired with 50 first-generation, first-year students. The mentors will spend at least 10 hours per week with each of their...
Deadline today for Ga Tech president to report on staff ethics failings
Deadline today for Ga Tech president to report on staff ethics failings

Georgia Tech president George “Bud” Peterson has a deadline of Wednesday to present a report to the state’s Board of Regents about how the university will prevent ethical abuses like the ones that ended with him firing an executive vice president and also to the resignation of three highly paid staffers. Two separate reports...
Are teachers on board as Gwinnett rolls out merit pay?
Are teachers on board as Gwinnett rolls out merit pay?

Gwinnett County Public Schools is rolling out a performance-based pay model that the superintendent calls “revolutionary” and a key to raising both student achievement and teacher morale. Saying few districts have the capacity for such bold reform, school chief J. Alvin Wilbanks credits the collaboration of teachers and administrators...
Future challenges for Georgia universities and colleges
Future challenges for Georgia universities and colleges

Those overseeing Georgia’s public colleges and universities unveiled a plan Tuesday, which some administrators say is the most exhaustive effort to enhance the system’s educational structure in more than two decades. The recommendations include more online courses and certificate classes for working professionals, using artificial intelligence...
More Stories