District's `trouble-shooters' help children with problems

Job combines counseling, social work and law

April 05, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Forty minutes after arriving at her office at West Middle School last week, Sherry G. Pyles finally got a chance to take her coat off.

Besieged by requests for help from students, administrators and teachers, Pyles turned away from the pedal-to-the-metal lifestyle of a pupil personnel worker in Carroll County's school system only to tell everyone to allow her to remove her wrap.

"You do lots of different things at one time -- you are a trouble--shooter who tries to solve different problems in creative ways," Pyles said of her daily routine.

Such is life for the staff of the Board of Education's seven "PPWs." Paid at the level of a school administrator, they are part lawyer, social worker, spiritual counselor and police officer as they roam the county's 33 schools and alternative and technical institutions, often as a last-resort advocate for troubled youth.

It's a high-energy, fast-burnout position in an ever-changing educational world, yet most say they'd have it no other way.

"My job is to keep them from jail," said Dick Simmons, a 26-year PPW. "Sometimes I have to tell these kids that they will end up either in jail, a psychiatric hospital or the morgue. And I tell them I'm tired of going to funerals."

Last month, the PPWs took the highly unusual step of recommending to Carroll's Juvenile Master Peter M. Tabatsko that an 11-year-old truant who had missed 83 days of school be sent to a Catonsville group home for three days.

That action, part of a countywide crackdown on truancy, was enhanced when school officials and the county's state's attorney also moved to charge the middle schooler's mother with failure to send her child to school, which carries fines of up to $3,000 and up to 10 days in jail if convicted.

Some PPWs are members of Student Assistance Teams, formed in some Carroll schools in 1987 to help evaluate changes in the behavior of certain students and to work with parents to identify problems.

Often it's a change in appearance or academic performance that tips school officials to pending trouble in a student's life. Sometimes, problems surface when attendance slips.

"We help to eliminate the problems so a child can attend school and become successful," said Barbara Guthrie, Carroll's director of guidance and a former PPW. "We rarely work in isolation. Most work is done at a school level with the school nurse, teachers and others."

Simmons, who said he carves ducks, plays racquetball and travels to avoid burnout from the demanding job, studied theology for 10 years as a Jesuit.

That, he said, was the best training for his role in dealing with the changing nature of society with family separation, divorce and drug and alcohol abuse.

"Many kids are traumatized and feel abandoned and lost," Simmons said. "It's us who [reach] out to these kids. People today have hardware and software -- but no heartware."

Pub Date: 4/05/99

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