Program helps high school students deal with anger

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comMarch 23, 2014 

When high school students are disruptive or get in fights with their peers, the reasons behind the misbehavior often swirl around anger issues. Now there’s a new way of dealing with these issues and ultimately reducing student discipline problems.

The Merced Union High School District has an anger management program that was retooled last fall in line with new state legislation. Now students who are caught fighting or show aggression toward their teachers or administrators are referred to a four-day program rather than being suspended from school.

The district is one of the first in the state to do preventive work in anger management, according to Darren Sylvia, director of student support services. Sylvia and his colleagues have been asked to share their experiences at a May 15 statewide child welfare and attendance conference.

Sylvia said the anger management program is worth its weight in gold, providing a service long overdue. Now students spend four consecutive six-hour sessions learning how to cope with anger or stress factors in their lives.

“We know students have difficulties that stem from home life,” Sylvia said, “that they don’t know how to deal with. The anger management program is doing great things to help students deal with emotions appropriately.”

Ashley Faraone, anger management counselor at the district’s site at Castle, is glad there’s a program in which students can have the tools of problem-solving after four days to help them with conflicts at school and home. She works with Atwater, Buhach Colony and Livingston high school students.

“When students can identify their triggers and ways to cope with their anger, it makes a big difference when they are faced with other conflicts in their lives,” Faraone said. She has spent five years as a high school counselor in Merced and Madera.

Faraone said she enjoys building relationships with students. Problems may stem from large blended families living together in cramped quarters, gang influences, incidents of family violence or instances in which a student isn’t getting enough attention at home.

Sylvia said Assembly Bill 1729, in effect since January 2013, requires school districts to do interventions before students are suspended.

Sylvia said typically there would be 140 expulsions in a year’s time. That has been cut in half in the 2013-2014 school year, and less than 5 percent of the students regress and get in trouble again.

Travis Blagg handles anger management classes at the East Campus Educational Center in Merced, working with students from Merced High, Golden Valley, El Capitan, Sequoia and Yosemite high schools.

“Every district should have a program like this,” Blagg said. “Suspending students makes things worse. One of the wonderful things about this program is that students can create relationships in 1:1 situations. We give students the tools to succeed and break the cycle.”

Earlier this month, 263 students had participated in anger management classes at the two sites.

Anger management program counseling sessions cover goal-setting, available resources, family violence, feelings, anger styles, stressors, career exploration, problem-solving and coping skills.

Faraone praises the built-in follow-ups made with each student. Faraone said she wants students to identify someone on campus they can go to. Students are not encouraged to repeat the class, but they can come back for refresher training on anger management skills.

“Four days is not a lot of time, which is why I think the follow-up with these students is just as important,” Faraone said. “We are able to communicate with the students through district email and school site visits. Being able to keep in touch with them and continue to support them is a big deal.

“Most importantly, the students recognize that they have someone on campus they can trust in a time of need or frustration is essential,” Faraone said.

Sun-Star staff writer Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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