Second of three stories.

Social worker Kara Tierney-Trevor says schools are the last remaining institutions that students and families can rely on for a range of needs.

Schools are the place where English and math instruction are taught, but also where a student may have their only meal. 

In her 15 years at South Portland High School, Tierney-Trevor said she has witnessed an evolution in how schools and social workers respond to and are expected to respond, to a variety of student and community needs.

“South Portland is a snapshot of real life. we have the haves and have-nots here, and a growing immigrant population. We have more racial, ethnic and sexual diversity than we’ve ever had before, which makes the community really rich, interesting and dynamic,” Tierney-Trevor said.

“I really respect this community, but our needs rise with all of those populations,” she said. “The school becomes the hub, the place where kids sometimes come to eat and be nurtured. It’s the central nervous system for a lot of kids and families in terms of having a variety of their needs met. We don’t always have the capacity to do that in the way a family or child might need, but we work really hard with students in a way that 10 years ago was not the norm.”

Changing reality

When Tierney-Trevor started her career, there was a lot of concern in the profession about which positions would survive because social workers were not essential teaching staff.

“You do not hear that about school social workers getting cut anymore,” she said. “We are not a social service agency, but since that time, the culture, needs and reality of what schools provide have changed drastically.”

Tierney-Trevor said additional responsibility has been added in part because many community resources no longer exist for students who are uninsured, underinsured, or are growing up in poverty. The impact of cuts to MaineCare and social services are felt at the community level and are in some ways mitigated by the school’s expanding role in children’s lives. 

Tierney-Trevor holds a dual master’s degree in social work and pastoral ministry from Boston College. Her first job out of college was in the admissions department at her Alma mater, the former Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. 

She said while working with young people who had a variety of social and emotional issues, she recognized she had a positive rapport and natural connection with youth, while also realizing she didn’t have the skill set she knew was needed to work with more serious mental health issues that were emerging. 

“And, I always had a sense of wanting to do work with meaning, and that felt more like a vocation than a profession – with an element of serving and giving back to the community,” she said of what drew her to social work. 

She is the only social worker assigned to the general student population at South Portland High School. Other social workers at the high school are dedicated to serving students eligible for special education.

‘I don’t chase students’

Tierney-Trevor said her caseload ebbs and flows, and she must often triage cases based on severity.

Typically, she may see a student once due to a single incident, such as substance abuse, where she will try to divert the individual into intensive community counseling, or pair them with the Sweetser school-based clinician. Much of the work consists of assessing students and determining how much help they need. 

“I don’t chase students. I don’t have the capacity, but I also feel it’s respectful of the development at the age high school students are at to help them self actualize what they need,” she said. 

She typically works with 30-50 students at a time. 

The team Tierney-Trevor works with day to day includes two assistant principals, the school resource officer, sometimes the school nurse, or guidance counselors. 

Tierney-Trevor said the way she interacts with students has evolved to include contact via a work cellphone, where she gives out her number, and in turn collects student’s numbers. When working with teenagers, a cell phone is invaluable, she said. 

When she first advocated to get the phone, a lot of students the team was most concerned about were truant, so it was imperative to figure out how to find the means to meet students where they were. 

Tierney-Trevor said the school still does make home visits, but they are sporadic, and not as common a practice as in previous years. 

A part of the job that has also evolved, and she particularly enjoys, is being more proactive.

“To sustain doing this work, I needed to find more opportunities to do significant public health or prevention oriented work,” she said. “I think anyone in this field, working with kids and support work, it’s very important to find opportunities to be involved in social activities with kids so you have the reminder of the potential, and the resilience all kids are capable of.”

Tierney-Trevor said she helps students decide what type of social work support is helpful to them, and to negotiate what that will look like – whether it’s meeting on their lunch break once a week, or during part of a study hall. She said she aims to be flexible with what works, knowing she can’t replicate an outpatient service or therapist experience.

Working with agencies outside of the school has also led to greater community involvement and opportunity.

SoPo Unite

Tierney-Trevor partnered with the Opportunity Alliance and two years ago, and at the encouragement of the South Portland Police Department, applied for a $500,000 federal grant to start SoPo Unite, a community coalition focused on working with youth to prevent substance abuse. The grant can be renewed after five years and up to 10 years. 

“It allowed us to rally the community – parents, businesses, police – in coming together for a common cause of working with youth,” she said, noting that preventing substance abuse includes components of wellness, mental health, community service and education.

The group holds monthly meetings with members and youth groups at the middle and high school, and their role is to spread “the cool factor” about avoiding substance use. This allows for grassroots, community-oriented prevention work. She said although it is specific to substance abuse, the work is all-encompassing.

“It’s really necessary in my mind as to what the school needs, is community buy-in and stakeholders,” Tierney-Trevor said. “It can’t just be staff trying to fix things. There are issues and problems that are a function of community, not just mental health, poverty, race or gun control, its a complex situation that requires a comprehensive approach.”

With Al Giusto, the school resource officer, she goes into health classes to talk about resources and support in prevention, coping strategies to manage stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression. 

“We’ve gotten away from teaching true coping skills for the level of stress society and culture presents everyone. It’s infiltrated into the collective mindset. How do we respond to all of this, how can students get quiet, focus and manage stress,” Tierney-Trevor said.

“We can’t just go around and tell kids not to worry, there is a school resource officer, and the doors are locked. That’s all external; we need to be teaching kids how to internally self calm and regulate.”

Tierney-Trevor also said punitive measures cannot be the only form of discipline applied as punishment in cases at the school.

In the coming months the School Board will consider revising its discipline policy in accordance with student behavior, with an emphasis on a more restorative justice approach for certain offenses, she said.

It’s also important the community understand the complexity of the problem and recognize there’s almost always another side to what’s going on.

“The kids that get targeted for making threats, I don’t know where people think these kids are all going to go,” Tierney-Trevor said. “The community needs to think restoratively about how do we respond to our youth in a way that helps to keep everyone safe, and secondly, how do we work to repair and rehabilitate situations that have caused harm or created fear, how do we help restore confidence in the community when something happens.”

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at [email protected]

Social worker Kara Tierney-Trevor has worked with the general student population at South Portland High School for 15 years. She says “there are issues and problems that are a function of community, not just mental health, poverty, race or gun control, its a complex situation that requires a comprehensive approach.”

The series

Part 1: The challenges facing efforts to integrate mental-health support in area schools.

This week: The role of the school counselor isn’t what it used to be.
Next week: Students regularly practice lock-down and active-shooter procedures; we’ll examine the protocols and their impact.

Mental health resources

• Cumberland County Crisis Response: Toll-free crisis intervention and suicide hotline, available to any resident of Cumberland County 24 hours a day at 888-568-1112. More information at

• NAMI Maine Helpline: Confidential helpline for peers, family members, friends, professionals and law enforcement, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Toll-free at 800-464-5767, press “1.” Email: [email protected]. More info at

• Maine 211: Connect with specialists 24/7; a free and confidential service. Dial 211, text your zip code to 898-211, email [email protected], or go online at

• Maine Behavioral Health:  24/7 information about treatment options. A “Rapid Access” program also allows callers to receive a mental health assessment quickly to begin receiving services. Call 844-292-0111.

 Federal Bureau of Investigation: To report a tip to the FBI Boston Office, which covers threats in the state of Maine, available 24/7, call 857-386-2000 or go online at:

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