School social work (SSW) and educational literature explicitly call for practice that facilitates social justice within schools. Several popular practice frameworks (culturally responsive, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive practice) have gained notoriety to move practitioners to action. Although the literature promotes social justice, school social workers often fail to engage in these essential practices. Studies indicate that school social workers (SSWs), with a primary focus on individualized practice at the tertiary level, do not consider themselves culturally competent, let alone culturally responsive or anti-oppressive.
Our study sought to understand how SSWs responded to racism and racial violence during the 2020 racial justice movements. The guiding research questions for this study are 1) How did SSWs respond to racism and racial violence during the 2020 racial justice movement)? and 2) How are SSWs engaging in and promoting anti-oppressive practice in their schools?
Seventeen SSWs across three states participated in key informant interviews in the Spring and Fall Semesters of 2020. There was little gender and racial diversity in the participants. Fifteen (88%) participants identified as female, and two identified as male. Fourteen (82%) participants identified as White, one (6%) identified as Hispanic, one (6%) identified as South Asian, and one (6%) identified as multi-racial (White and Hispanic). Most school social workers (n=14, 82%) served schools with majority BIPOC student populations.
The 34 interviews were transcribed and uploaded to Atlas.ti 9.1.3 for data analysis. The transcripts were analyzed using a grounded theory approach, including three coding cycles. In the first coding cycle, the researchers applied provisional codes to capture the meanings and actions within each data segment. The second cycle of coding involved focused coding. The researchers either applied the most useful codes from our initial coding cycle or created new codes that better fit the data. In the third coding cycle, axial codes were applied. To do this, researchers reviewed all the codes and associated data to link categories with associated sub-categories. Memos were kept throughout the coding process to highlight emerging themes, understandings of the data, etc.
Three themes emerged from the data analysis. These themes highlight how SSWs responded to racism and racial violence during the 2020 racial justice movements. SSWs (1) engaged in conversations about race and racism, (2) participated in ongoing learning opportunities about race/racism and racial justice (including book discussions, equity teams, and professional development), and (3) worked to maintain and strengthen relationships with students and families.
Conclusion and implications:
While not inherently anti-racist, these themes are consistent with social work values and add concrete examples to the literature of culturally responsive school social work practice. Recommendations that support SSWs moving from culturally responsive to anti-racist practice are discussed. These include increased (1) support for anti-racist practice across systems levels (e.g., school, SSW department, district, and state levels), (2) training for SSWs on anti-racist practice, including how to engage in conversations about race and racism, and (3) SSWs leadership on school equity teams. Implications for the SSW practice, curriculum, and future research are also discussed.