UNION NEWS - SUNDAY REPUBLICAN
Educators get lessons on how to head off violence
Sunday, January 13, 2002 By MARY ELLEN O'SHEA
SPRINGFIELD — The crash course has begun.
Across the city, principals and other school administrators — teachers are next on the list — are learning how to calm down angry and violent students and what to do when the worst happens.
The training, given by the Connecticut-based firm Physical/Psychological Management Training, was planned for later in the year. But classes began last week, accelerated after the Rev. Theodore N. Brown was stabbed to death in a city classroom on Dec. 5. A student has been charged with the murder.
The keys to heading off classroom violence, shared by training director Lee Lowery, include: Speak calmly but firmly, addressing the student by name. Acknowledge the student's emotional state, as in, "I can see you are angry, Billy." Offer options to give the student a sense of control, such as, "Billy, you can put the chair down, or I can help you put it down. Which will it be?" Step back, separate the feet slightly to maintain balance, avoid words or body language that might seem combative or confrontational.
In one session, Lowery walked administrators through a series of moves aimed at breaking free of a student's grip, or getting out of a choke hold.
His session, laced with humor, emphasized one basic element that he said should always be a part of dealing with students, whether angry or not.
"Be succinct, have confidence in your voice. Don't equivocate," he said.
The most unpredictable and dangerous moment is usually just before violence occurs, and he urged the group to recognize warning signs, such as a child pacing or acting wildly nervous. Efforts should then be made to channel them to positive pursuits.
"The actual violence is the most manageable phase," he said. "It's happening; it's real, the chair is flying through the air. You don't need a course that says 'Duck'."
He also urged participants to get to know every child they deal with, as aggressive outbursts frequently point to other problems.
"The behavior you are witnessing may be an inappropriate way of a child showing an emotion. The only way to be effective may be by getting a better understanding of what is going on," he said.
The training sessions are aimed at ensuring that those working with children know how to handle crises. The lessons come at a time when student violence is on the upswing — last year, 255 city students were suspended for assaults, up from 236 the previous year and 119 five years ago.
The death of Brown jolted the entire system into action.
The incident occurred as Brown followed 17-year-old Corey N. Ramos into a classroom, ordering him to remove his hood to comply with school rules.
Superintendent Joseph P. Burke said that another group of 180 teachers are in line to get the training, starting this week. In addition, the previously scheduled staff development day on Jan. 25 will be dedicated to more crisis intervention training for all 2,700 teachers.
"We're looking a lot more closely at preparing teachers and staff for critical incidents," Burke said.
The specialized training under way is being done with a contract to the private company at a cost of $7,950, money taken from the professional development budget.
It won't be the first time teachers have been trained to deal with student violence and aggression.
Professional Development Director Mary Kate Fenton said teachers and other staff members have been getting the training all along.
But for the past three years, much of it has been done outside of the annual seven days of staff development guaranteed under the teachers' contract. That time has been spent on student achievement, in the ongoing effort to boost scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests.
"Schools have been doing their own training, especially in buildings where they have a lot of students with behavioral issues. They bring in speakers and experts pretty regularly," Fenton said.
© 2002 UNION-NEWS. Used with permission.
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