Cleveland Schools Struggle With Finding and Helping Potentially Violent Students, Study Reports

J Kroll, Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 13, 2008

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The Cleveland school district is overwhelmed by students’ mental-health needs and has few ways to identify youngsters who could turn violent, a new study says.

The limited number of counselors available are diverted to roles other than counseling, according to the report from the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C.

Researchers also found that staff and students, often from very different backgrounds, struggle to connect. And the study questioned the effectiveness of discipline policies and the professionalism of security officers.

That report was one of two released Wednesday, Aug. 13, by the district, which commissioned the research after 14-year-old Asa Coon opened fire last year at SuccessTech Academy. He wounded two teachers and two other students before killing himself. {snip}

The second study, targeted at keeping danger out of buildings, found progress in the hiring and training of security officers. But schools chief Eugene Sanders said the more important study is the one aimed at helping the district identify and treat students who pose a threat to others or disrupt classes.

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The report notes that the schools must deal with issues that stem from the poverty and chaos that many students find in their neighborhoods.

The study, which cost $337,000, says other community agencies treat the same children, but the district and those agencies don’t communicate well.

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Researchers called for better training a faculty that is nearly two-thirds white so that teachers more clearly understand the backgrounds of a student body that is two-thirds black.

“I think you have teachers who are very good teachers, but who feel alien in the community,” AIR research scientist David Osher said in an interview.

Cleveland’s difficulties are similar to those of other urban and inner-ring suburban school districts, Osher said. He commended Cleveland school officials for confronting the challenges and said he’s optimistic that the 52,000-student system can turn things around.

But he said Cleveland’s plight is unique because of an unusually high rate of lead poisoning—from paint in aging houses—that can affect behavior and academic performance.

Osher also cited what he called “chronic underfunding” that has left school staff thin and panting to keep up.

For example, the report says that in 2006, the district had only 85 psychologists, one for every 692 students. And at one high school, guidance counselors spent most of their time re-enrolling a parade of students who had been dropped from the rolls for poor attendance.

Researchers also found the district moved slowly in tracking widespread absenteeism and tardiness, even though the number of students who missed more than 15 days in a year was well above 90 percent at two high schools. Truant officers, forced to take care of several schools at a time, have been reduced to clerks mired in paperwork, Osher said.

Teachers union President David Quolke said layoffs several years ago gutted the ranks of district social workers.

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The study also called for more professional behavior from a security staff that teachers said were too cozy with students and sometimes not available when needed.

The security force was a main focus of the other study, conducted by the Council of Great City Schools. The group, representing the nation’s largest urban districts, said Cleveland school security officers lacked training and suffered from low morale.

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