Program required for youths who get into confrontations.
By DOANE YAWGER
Many people become angry at some point in their lives. It’s how they handle the anger that makes a difference.
When students at high schools in Merced, Atwater and Livingston get into fights, it lands them in after-hours anger management classes designed to help them deal with those issues and the challenges of life.
In the 2009-10 school year, which ended in June, 427 students at Atwater, Buhach Colony, Golden Valley, Merced, Livingston, Sequoia and Yosemite high schools were referred to anger management.
Sixty to 70 percent of these fights occurred off-campus, as students were going to and from school.
But that didn’t erase the requirement of attending 10 sessions once or twice a week, according to Kelly Bentz, the Merced Union High School District’s program administrator for child welfare, attendance and safety. Sessions are held in the summer as well.
“Still the safest place to be is at school,” Bentz said. “This is not just a school issue; it’s a community issue.”
Cindy Davis has been a counselor at Merced High School for 13 years. She’s a crisis counselor who is a licensed marriage and family therapist and says the school has had a “pretty good success rate” with the 75-minute anger management classes.
Most of the offenders have been freshmen; upperclassmen appear to gain maturity as they advance or realize they don’t want to jeopardize their graduation by the expulsion that could follow a repeat offense.
Yer Xiong, the district’s children and youth liaison, started facilitating anger management groups at campuses about two years ago. At the end of the sessions, she’s sorry to see the students go, but said youthful participants ultimately learn to tolerate certain things that might have angered them earlier.
“Generally, some students don’t know what else to do to resolve anger. They don’t think of the consequences,” Xiong said.
Alternate to expulsion
Bentz said the anger management sessions began three years ago when board policies were revised. Students can attend the sessions in lieu of expulsion or go to alternative programs if she approves.
“I get angry all the time, but I’ve never hit anybody,” Davis said. “It’s what you do with anger.”
Participation in anger management classes is about 50-50 male-female. Many fights between female students are over a male student. With males, masculinity issues may be a motivation to fight, Bentz said.
Xiong said role-playing is part of the curriculum to help students realize they are not the only ones going through certain situations at home and that these situations are not their fault. One of the sessions involves goal-setting because some students have no idea what they will do after high school.
Bentz said some students don’t have the skills needed to avoid conflict. The media and popular culture dictate that problems be solved by fighting, she said.
“With the school district, it’s not OK,” Bentz said.
On anonymous group evaluation forms, students have said they wish the sessions were held during the regular school day rather than after school, but have responded positively to the experience.
“The most important thing I learned is how to I can control my anger and handle situations differently,” one student wrote. Another student said, “The most important thing I think I’ve learned from this group was how to express my anger in a calmer, better way. I’ve changed because I can control my anger and I know that when something upsets me, I can talk to somebody about it.”
Bentz said most parents don’t realize that the problem that provoked the fight had reached that level. The important thing, she stressed, is not to dismiss it.
“Don’t ignore it; don’t confront the person. It just makes it worse. Our counselors are skilled at conflict resolution,” Bentz said. Parents are urged to contact counselors if they know of a serious situation involving their children.
Davis said anger management participants find a new way of thinking and learn how to solve situations at home. Some students concede they “just snapped” and later realize it wasn’t worth it, she said.
Participants are given laminated cards outlining eight anger management steps along with five problem-solving skills they can use. These include reflective listening, kindness, apologizing and negotiating a compromise.
Bentz said one problem is that students don’t know who to trust. They are urged to seek adults who are trustworthy.
In the sessions, Davis said, personal matters are discussed and bonds are developed among students and counselors. Students learn the difference between being assertive and aggressive.
Students have a book with worksheets and must complete homework after each session.
“With gang influences in our community, lots of kids are scared out there,” Bentz said. “There are many ways to handle problems. Any problem has multiple solutions, and it’s important to have a Plan B.”
Davis said it can take a couple of sessions before students view the class in a positive way, loosen up, express themselves and form bonds with other students.
Students who are randomly assaulted by other students aren’t required to attend anger management classes. The two participants in a fight attend separate anger management classes.
Asked how he has changed on one of the evaluation forms, a student said, “I haven’t got mad as easily. I’ve been a nicer person.”