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Teaching, Counseling Juggled

April 29, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ At Palms Middle School in Los Angeles, seventh- and eighth-graders spend one English class period a week in Council, a conflict-resolution program where they work out differences that often lead to anger, or worse.

At the same time, teacher Denise Rockwell-Woods knows she must prepare children for tests on academic subjects that often are tied to promotions or graduation. But, she says, the weekly rap sessions are worth her time: ``I know it’s saved kids.″

The burden of who’s responsible for saving kids came full circle at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where last week Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shot 12 schoolmates and a teacher before turning the guns on themselves. Students claim teachers knew about vengeful videos the boys made last fall. School officials deny such videos were made. A parent blamed police for ignoring complaints against one gunman; the sheriff said the killers’ parents should have known their sons planned an attack.

In the end, teachers are on the front lines. And despite threat of lawsuits from parents or students and a lack of money and time, teachers often take on the role of counselor at the expense of teaching.

``All of the best research shows the best influence (on children) is parental support,″ said Linda Rosenblatt, spokeswoman for the New York State United Teachers union. ``But if it’s not there, we just can’t roll over.″

The key to preventing violence is not armed guards, but knowing individual children, said Mark Singer, a social work professor specializing in youth mental health at Case Western Reserve University. ``To that end teachers can be terrific. They can spot students who are alienated. They know which ones are being threatened.″

Teachers are helped if classroom lessons are linked to such intervention, said Joe Provisor, an eighth-grade English teacher at Palms Middle School.

``Because it is approved as part of our language arts-social studies curriculum, there’s no question that it’s going to happen,″ said Provisor, who coordinates the Council project. He argues that discussing hate and prejudice helps students understand wars or other events taught in social studies class.

But teachers note that students already miss math or reading lessons to attend anti-drug talks, divorced-parents counseling and anger-management classes that fill up the school day and give them less one-on-one time with students.

``Every time the legislature mandates a new program, it impacts on how we can spend our time,″ said Rockwell-Woods, who teaches five daily computer classes of 25 students each.

Some problems are beyond their control anyway.

Children arrive at school with emotional issues, often deep, that no one else has addressed, said Linda Wheeler, director of Families and Schools Together, a project encouraging parental involvement in local schools.

``As a society, we are putting demands on the schools to take care of these issues rather than taking the responsibility we have as parents,″ Wheeler said.

Teachers say they also need more help from school-based social workers and counselors, whom they outnumber by a large measure. On average, there’s one teacher for every 17 students, but a guidance counselor for every 513 students.

``We’re asking them (teachers) to spot the problems and do the follow-up,″ said Singer, ``and that’s asking too much.″

Teachers also want strong policies to back up their efforts. In a survey of New York state teachers released last Thursday, nine in 10 said their schools had strong conduct codes, but two-thirds said the schools weren’t consistent in enforcing them.

``Every school should have a clear discipline code,″ said David Strom, legal counsel for the American Federation of Teachers union. ``Kids want to push the envelope. It’s important for them to know where the envelope ends.″

Few districts have enough alternative classes or schools for seriously troubled children.

``It doesn’t help the student when all that a teacher can say is go to the vice principal’s office,″ said Jamie Horowitz, a spokesman for AFT.

But, he acknowledged, referrals can invite legal action _ a growing deterrent for teachers and schools trying to identify problem students.

``It makes us think twice,″ said Rockwell-Woods, who has taught 26 years and believes parents and students today are much more likely to sue.

There are thousands of such lawsuits nationwide, said Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

Last year, a Cabrillo, Calif., eighth-grader sued the district after being suspended for five days for his essays depicting a principal’s murder. The case was later settled. In Kansas, a judge dismissed a seventh-grade boy’s suit over being disciplined for drawing a Confederate flag, which violated the school hate-speech policy.

Though courts have sided with schools’ interest in maintaining order and protecting students, Underwood said, teachers identifying problem students must walk a fine line.

``We advise people to act reasonably,″ she said. ``Sometimes kids are just acting weird because they’re kids. Knowing the difference is more of an art than a science.″

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