Release Date: May 16, 2001
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The school day starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 1:30 p.m. Classes are limited to 10 students, and much of the instruction is one-on-one. Coursework emphasizes the fundamentals: English, social studies and math/science. Good behavior is required.
So is entering school through a metal detector, since the program offered by the V.I.S.A. Center at the University at Buffalo is designed to provide students who have been suspended from the Buffalo Public Schools for acts of violence a safe, weapon-free environment where they can feel comfortable expressing themselves.
Since it opened last Nov. 15, the center, part of the UB School of Social Work, has served the needs of roughly 200 students from the Buffalo Public Schools.
The center, the first university and school-system collaboration of its kind in the nation, provides an intensive, two-week program of academic work and counseling. Located in the Acheson Annex on the UB South (Main Street) Campus, the center serves up to 30 youths at a time from grades 7-10, although older students may participate with permission.
Even the toughest-acting students seem to be finding something they need at the center. The few students who have been asked to leave the program because of continued behavior problems have cried and have asked to be allowed to stay, said Linda Lavid, senior clinician at the center and a social worker with the Buffalo Public Schools. Of the 200 students who have been assigned to the center, only a handful has repeated the program.
"You see a real difference in the students from the time they enter the program until the time they leave," she added. "When they come in, they're sour, sullen, withdrawn. They don't want to be here. But after a few days, you notice a change. They're doing their hair differently, dressing differently. They're smiling."
David Cumberlander, program security specialist, said participants and their parents have expressed the desire that the program run longer, perhaps a month or three months. "The kids want more of a relationship with the center's staff. They feel like they can trust us."
The Buffalo Public Schools also are seeing good results.
"One of the students who participated in the program went back to his school, and the principal called us and asked if we'd done a lobotomy on him, his behavior was so different," Lavid said. "A couple of months later the principal called again and said that while the student was starting to act up a little again, he still was behaving much better than he did before he came to the V.I.S.A. Center."
The V.I.S.A. Center is financed by a New York State Legislative Initiative Grant of $700,000 funded by state Assembly Deputy Speaker Arthur O. Eve and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The program continues through June 8, and will resume in the fall.
Hundreds of Buffalo public schoolchildren are suspended each year for violence, threats of violence, weapons possession or other disruptive actions. Prior to the opening of the V.I.S.A. Center, suspended students sat at home. By law, they received two hours of in-home instruction, which may have helped them continue their academics, but did not address the behavior that got them suspended.
Six months after opening its doors, approximately one in four students suspended from school for violence are choosing to participate in the center's program.
Participation in the center's program is voluntary. Each student and a parent or guardian must sign a contract agreeing to abide by behavior guidelines. In addition to academic coursework, students participate in group counseling that deals with topics such as anger management, conflict resolution, communication and social skills, drugs and alcohol, violence in the media, assertiveness, stress management and self-esteem.
The group counseling "is very interactive," said Lavid. "We talk about feelings, problems at school and home, problems with peers. The emphasis is on behavior management because a lot of these kids have impulse-control problems."
The participants also need to feel secure, Cumberlander added.
Students are assigned to a class of no more than 10, where teachers work with them individually. Classes are a mix of all ages; students have come from virtually every school in the Buffalo Public Schools. Roughly two-thirds of them are boys.
The trigger point that gets the student suspended may be boy/girl problems, gang-related violence, being out on the street or miscommunication with their regular teachers where neither the student nor the teacher is giving each other a chance to listen. They also have a lot of anger.
"Their behavior is a defense mechanism that they've set up," Cumberlander said. "But this is a new place and because it's new to them, they're more open and they want to know what the program is about." Lavid added: "The emphasis is on encouraging them to express themselves, and providing a safe place for them to do that."