Not Lying Down

GSSW Alum Meira Cohen Stands Up Against Bullying and Ignorance

January 15, 2014

New York State’s BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services) program has been around for nearly seven decades. The organization’s stated goal has always been to “provide shared educational programs and services to school districts within the state,” but at times its services have been misinterpreted as an alternative classroom environment for “bad” or “trouble” kids who don’t fit in with mainstream public schools.

GSSW Class of ’11 alumnus and National Association of Social Workers member Meira Cohen knows first-hand how incomplete and inaccurate that perception is. Not long after graduating Touro, the current Long Islander (by way of California, Cleveland and Maryland) interned with the BOCES arm of Greenvale’s Iris Wolfson High School. Her work there transcended mere behavioral correction, spanning counseling for children with emotional disabilities and creating anti-bullying curricula.

“The school that I’m in served adolescents who, for whatever reason, were not successful in their home districts,” she clarifies. “The kids usually have average to superior intelligence, so it’s a lot of anxiety, depression, ADHD. A lot of the students are on the autism spectrum, and it’s usually emotional difficulties that are keeping them from being successful.”

Her efforts for BOCES, in addition to an earlier internship with Central Nassau County’s Guidance and Counseling Services—where Cohen developed a skillset for leading support groups and assisting individuals with addiction—reflect our culture’s evolved, nuanced understanding of what causes young people to struggle within the system. They also redirected Cohen’s energies from teaching to social work, and her eventual goal is to work as a counselor with adolescents and young adults.

“I was completely convinced I wanted to be a teacher,” she says. And during a student-teaching internship that she describes as mostly “very technical” with “a lot of discipline,” Cohen had the chance to curate her first anti-bullying initiative. She quickly realized “anything that had to do with social or emotional well-being of the students was much what I was interested in. Teaching… I could do it, and it was somewhat enjoyable, but where I really felt like I came alive was when I was helping a student who was having a difficult time emotionally, so that’s when I made that switch from education to social work.”

The importance of bullying-prevention, which continues to be a hot-button issue in American schools, has become something of a cause d’etre for Cohen. The good news is that much like our broader compassion for the kids enrolled with BOCES, communities are beginning to understand the complexities of bullying. Now, Cohen hopes they’ll be even more proactive about diminishing it at the source.

“Because it’s kind of starting in the areas of mental health, there’s a large emphasis on it in the world of education also,” she says. “It’s kind of spilling over. There’s a lot of reaction when bullying occurs, but there’s not a lot of prevention in building schools that foster a place where bullying wouldn’t happen.”

Cohen is just beginning her journey toward positively affecting lives and spurring outreach, all of which can be overwhelming when you’re so personally invested. But if she’s learned one thing above all else on her road to social work, it’s that you can’t fix a person’s life. All you can do is be one person willing to listen, care and nurture.

“A lot of social workers have the sense that there are so many problems—people often get very down,” she says. “I often feel like that in my internship now.  I’m facing students who have problems with their family or community that I can’t fix. A big piece is empowerment. You can give the person tools to be able to effectively deal with their situation. It’s not you really doing it. You’re coaching the person along to become an advocate for themselves.”