Release Date: April 6, 2006
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Recent incidents of student fighting in the Buffalo Public Schools point to a disturbing problem facing schools across the U.S., according to a nationally regarded expert in school violence at the University at Buffalo.
"It's a national problem," said Lawrence Shulman, former dean and professor in the UB School of Social Work. "You've got stressed teachers, overstressed kids, schools lacking in the support services to deal with kids who bring personal and family problems into school each day. Add to that the potent mix that you have when kids from different neighborhoods, belonging to different gangs, find themselves in the same middle or high school.
"Violence in the schools is inevitable unless it's addressed on a number of fronts."
It's also an issue that the School of Social Work is addressing, he said, thanks to several programs it has developed to defuse and prevent school violence.
Social work researchers, including Shulman and staff from its Buffalo partner agency Child & Family Services, are working with students, teachers, administrators and Closing the Gap partners at Buffalo's Harvey Austin Middle School to solve problems before they escalate into violence.
The program targets students in grades five through eight because, Shulman says, seventh and eighth grade are the highest suspension grades in the Buffalo school district.
In one program, in four selected classrooms, the School of Social Work and Child & Family Services have developed a service called "The Circles," which serves about 80 students and brings school staff and trained fathers from the surrounding community into the classroom regularly each week. The focus is on helping students and teachers develop communication skills that allow them to address and deal with problems before they erupt into violent confrontations in the classroom, in the school or after school, Shulman said.
Mediation of conflicts also is available to all students in the school; students need only approach project staff and to ask them to intervene in a conflict so that they can avoid having to fight after school and still not "lose face."
The program also eventually will implement anti-bullying elements that were developed by the School of Social Work at previous schools with the two-year support of the Allstate Foundation. A series of tested modules focuses on educating both the bullies and the by-standers. Even when a student is willing to back away from a conflict, Shulman notes, the urging of by-standers often makes it impossible to do so without losing face.
Another program being developed at Harvey Austin Middle School is designed for students who have been removed from their classes for inappropriate classroom behavior. Such removals can last for an hour or a day. The students are provided with support in a separate classroom where in pairs or informal small groups, staff provide help in anger management, effective communication and violence prevention. Individual and group counseling helps the students understand why they are in trouble, what they can do to return to their class successfully and how they can stay out of trouble.
In addition to prevention and in-school suspension services, Shulman said an out-of-school suspension program should be considered for implementation in the alternative school recently proposed by the Buffalo Public Schools.
The School of Social Work's VISA (Vision, Integrity, Structure and Accountability) program, a two-week assessment and intervention program for students suspended from school for violent or other disruptive behavior, could serve as a model for the school, according to Shulman.
The VISA program, previously housed on the South Campus, provided academic support, as well as individual and group activities, to address the behaviors that led to students' suspension. The program, funded by a grant from the New York State Legislature through the efforts of former Assemblyman Arthur Eve, served 235 children in one full year of operation. The project was cut short by state-funding cutbacks following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A report on the VISA program will be available later this spring, Shulman said. It will provide, among other things, a profile of the type of student most at risk for suspension and re-suspension that may be prevented through early intervention.
The Buffalo schools are "desperate" for the types of services that the School of Social Work, Child & Family Services and other community agencies are bringing to the Harvey Austin Middle School, Shulman said.
Trying to deal with violent conflicts on a daily basis can lead to teacher burnout. "In some schools, a large number of teachers may be substitutes on any day.
"The schools don't have enough services to help their students," Shulman said, "and it is unfair to ask teachers and administrators to try to carry the load. All of these problems are manageable, but you have to be willing to put in the effort and money. Teachers need experience, resources and support."
Harvey Austin Middle School is one of six schools participating in Closing the Gap, a program designed to improve student success by providing coordinated services that address the health and human service needs of children and their families that are comprehensive, family centered and driven, developmentally appropriate, outcome oriented and measurable, preventive and flexible to the needs of the child and the school. The School of Social Work's efforts currently are funded by a $100,000 grant from the New York State Department of Education Extended Day School Program.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.