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" If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow."
     -- Chinese Proverb


Schools Address Teenage Anger

Students need societal skills

By John A. DeMember, Correspondent

Albert Mercado, a Clinton High School guidance counselor, has seen a lot of angry teens over the years.

Recalling one 16-year-old who arrived at Clinton High from Florida a few years ago, he said, “When he got angry, he got angry, and he didn’t know how to control it.”

Soon after arrival, the student had an altercation in the community. He resisted arrest and faced a charge of assault and battery on a police officer. But after completing a mandated 10-step anger management program, he was successful at Clinton High School and is now in college.

“He learned how to calm down and relax,” Mr. Mercado said. “He recognized his triggers.” He also learned how to talk to people effectively and appropriately, and how to be a leader.

Anger management has become a major concern in Massachusetts school systems, according to state and local officials. More than 10,000 students participated in anger management support groups in Massachusetts public schools in the 2003-2004 school year, according to the state Department of Public Health’s Essential School Health Program Data Report for that year. The groups provided anger, conflict and violence management support for youths.

“These groups were only available in 32 percent of districts,” the report notes, but there were more students participating in the anger management groups than in any other type of support group, including emotional/psychosocial support groups, which were available in 50.5 percent of school districts.

Districts that do not provide anger management support groups, including Worcester, often use other types of programs to help angry youths and teens.

Worcester, for example, provides after-school anger management and conflict resolution classes in its secondary schools as an alternative to suspension for less serious aggressive acts and as a requirement for re-entry to school after a suspension for violent behavior, said Judith Thompson, coordinator of counseling psychology and community outreach at Burncoat High School.

Alison B. Ludden, a professor of adolescent development at the College of the Holy Cross, said there are a number of possible causes for teen anger. She noted that stressful life events that are beyond the teen’s control, such as divorce, moving or other major transitions may lead to teen anger issues. Other factors include lack of support, difficulty in school or conflict with loved ones.

“Anger management self-help groups may be the key to helping adolescents effectively cope with their problems and emerging anger,” she said.

“I don’t think these are easy times to grow up in,” Ms. Thompson said. “They have a need to get these skills to cope with their negative emotions in a positive way.”

Noting that “anger management is the latest label for social skills training,” Ms. Thompson said many youths may not have matured enough to face increasingly complex life obstacles. “All we see in schools are a reflection of society,” she said. “Schools are a microcosm. They are public schools, so they reflect the public.”

Clinton High School Principal James S. Hastings said the problem is widespread.

“This is something that crosses all ethnic and economic classes,” he said, adding that the first defense against anger problems is the teacher.

“At Clinton, we have proactive teachers who have been able to intervene. The teachers see things and pick up on things,” he said. “When you know the students and they are having problems, you know how to defuse them.”

While only a court can order a student to attend anger management sessions, Mr. Hastings said school administrators can suggest it to parents, who then need to follow through to ensure a child’s attendance.

“We have kids in our school that haven’t done enough to go to court,” he noted. “In the cases I have had, the parents have been on the same page.”

Often that is because the parents have seen the same behaviors at home, Mr. Hastings said. Gardner High School Principal Michael R. Baldassarre said teaching students how to control anger is an important aspect of education.

“It is more important to teach the students how to get along with one another than to teach them how to read and write,” he said.

Indeed, a key determinant to a student’s success in life is his or her ability to deal with other people, Mr. Baldassarre said. Those who cannot control their emotions tend to have trouble holding jobs and meeting standards.

There is a great deal of focus on both accountability and standardized testing in schools, Mr. Baldassarre explained. As a result of the faculty’s intense concentration on curriculum, schools can only react to students’ anger, rather than being proactive. But in recent years there has been a drastic increase in what faculty and administrators take seriously, he noted. Violent drawings, threats and rumors that would have previously been overlooked are now investigated.

“The public knowledge (about) Columbine reinforces my increased efforts toward safety,” Mr. Baldassarre said. In 1999, two students killed 12 schoolmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado. The gunmen, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, then apparently killed themselves.

The real danger from anger problems among youth, as Columbine slayings showed, is that “anger can be much more instantly destructive with guns,” noted Francis “Tuck” Amory, a Worcester State College urban studies professor.

Mr. Baldassarre pointed out that students themselves are the first line of defense against potentially violent situations, but a code of silence among high school students can make learning about such potential problems difficult. “Relationships are everything” among teens, he said. It is the principal’s job to break the code of silence when it needs to be broken, in the interest of safety.

Evan P. Graber, director of outpatient services at YOU Inc., a social service agency based in Worcester, said there are many angry kids, but he sees a different reason for their anger.

“There is a crisis in masculinity in our society,” he said. “We have ratcheted up the way men and boys need to prove their masculinity.”

He added, “We need to look at who is doing the school shootings, battering, road rage and murder suicides — men and boys.”

Unrealistic depictions of how a man is supposed to act leads to the ridiculing of school boys who do not live up to that image, Mr. Graber said.

“A lot of these school shootings were done by kids that felt that they were picked on and were exacting revenge,” he said. “There is an assumption that there is only one way to be a man. God forbid if a boy is into poetry or theater.”

Slang phrases with implicit messages such as “Tough it out,” or “Suck it up,” create an emotional disconnect within males, he said. “There are multiple ways to being a man,” he said, and young people need to know that.

“Until it becomes important to men, collectively, we have a real problem in society,” Mr. Graber concluded.

Mr. Amory, who has been a licensed social worker for more than 30 years in addition to teaching at Worcester State, acknowledged that there are many angry high school students, but suggested that anger management programs may be just the latest trend for dealing with behavior problems.

“Anger management might be the new fad, like Hula-Hoops, or it could really help,” he said.

He noted that there is a financial incentive for schools to buy into the anger management trend.

“Essentially, the school gets paid a certain amount for every kid they have — and for every special ed kid, they receive considerably more,” he explained. “It was the same thing with attention deficit disorder. They were throwing Ritalin at everyone, even ones who clearly didn’t benefit from it.”

And there is yet another potential negative aspect to the anger management trend, according to Mr. Amory. When not managed appropriately, anger management classes can create a stigma for a student that is counterproductive.

“It can ultimately result in the labeling of kids as bad and deviant, and the teachers may avoid the student due to this label,” be said.

Claire T. Russell, director of children’s outpatient services at Community Healthlink of Worcester, said she believes that some young people who seem angry are not angry at all.

“When kids are overstressed, their behavior may be seen as anger,” she said. “Assessment is so critical.”

Mr. Graber, of YOU Inc., agreed that stress can lead to bad behavior.

“The pressures of school achievement, sports and over-scheduling put a lot of stress on kids, and one way the stress comes out is frustration and anger,” he said.

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