Alumni Profile

Marleen Wong '71
Social Worker on Call “Ms. Wong will have to call you back later,” says the secretary. “She’s responding to media calls about the shooting in Oregon this morning.” Acts of deadly violence by school children having become an all-too-regular tragedy, Marleen Wong’s expertise is more in demand than ever. Wong, who earned a Master’s in Social Work degree at USC in 1971, is director of mental health, district crisis intervention teams and suicide intervention programs for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
With her 27 years of experience in the field and the specific knowledge she has gained helping children and their families cope with events such as Los Angeles’ 1992 civil unrest and the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Wong has emerged as a national and international resource on traumas affecting public schools. She provided consultation and training for Oklahoma City schools following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, and for schools in Kobe and Tokyo, Japan, in the wake of the poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway and the Kobe earthquake.

“LET'S TALK TODAY, because I’m supposed to be in the Secretary’s office on Friday,” says Wong when she calls back. She means U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley. “He very much has Oregon [where a 15-year-old in Springfield had just killed one student, wounded 23, and killed his parents] on his mind,” she explains. “He wants to discuss the recent events that have occurred over several months, how we can better understand why young people become involved in this kind of violence and what we can do about it.”
Asked for a preview of her response, Wong pauses. “Preventing violence is complex. It’s not just an individual problem. Certainly some of these children have very severe mental health problems, but it’s also an indictment against our violent society. We need to change the way we treat each other, the way we view other groups -- that it’s somehow okay to perpetrate a violent act against someone else because they’re different from us.”
Whether it’s school shootings, terrorism or natural disasters, Wong sees common responses. “Children become very fearful and don’t want to return to school,” she says. “A school can lose anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of its student population [after a crisis].” She trains school officials to respect the students’ and their parents’ psychological trauma and to gradually bring them back to school for counseling.
Wong’s wide-ranging contributions have not gone unnoticed close to home. Earlier this year her department in the LAUSD received the Jules Levine Field Work Instruction Award from Los Amigos de la Humanidad, a support organization for the USC School of Social Work. The school’s Family and Children’s Concentration places the majority of its graduate students who are specializing in school social work with Wong’s mental health program for field training.
“This work is not just a job,” she says. “It’s really a lifelong -- but very rewarding -- commitment.”

Violence in schools is “not just an individual problem,” says Marleen Wong. “It’s an indictment against our violent society.”
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