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The Age of Rage : At Nimitz Middle School, students are taking a course that could save their lives: how to curb anger. In this struggle, everyone wins.

March 10, 1994|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just thinking about it made her teen-age blood boil.

"My mom told me to pick up my room, to make my bed, to cook my breakfast, to hurry up and put on my shoes--and I still had to do my hair!" recalled Selena Aragon, 13.

"I shouted, 'You know, Mom, I only have two hands. I can't do everything. I'm not like you!' " Selena said she ran into her room, flung a photo of her mother against a wall and raced out the door, her mother yelling, "No going out after school today!"

Six hours after that argument, Selena was still seething. Her blowups have been frequent since her parents' divorce five years ago. Sometimes she wants to strike her mom, she recently told other students enrolled in the Think First anger-management program at Nimitz Middle School in Southeast Los Angeles.

Repeated visits to the dean's office have landed them in the seventh-period anti-anger sessions, which Nimitz officials believe are the only such classes offered within the Los Angeles Unified School District. Parents have given their consent and teachers have excused the students from regular classes to participate.

Confessing that she can't keep her dander down, Selena has plenty of company. Thirty students are enrolled in the classes, which meet weekly.

All of the students have circled 10 on an anger scale drawn on the classroom board. It ranges from 1, a little bit angry, to 10, out of control. One by one, they admitted that more often than they'd like, their adrenaline gets them in trouble. They get uptight when they are gossiped about, or, as they say, "dissed." They're even angrier when somebody looks at them the wrong way, or as they put it, "mad-dogs" them. They lash out by cursing and sometimes slugging.

Some said they act on their anger by throwing things, kicking things or breaking things. Others keep their feelings bottled up. When that happens, depression often sets in.

"Anger is a very normal process. You can't restrict anger; it's a message and the message is that something is wrong," Floyd McGregor told the group of girls. The classroom resembles a den, with sofa, matching chairs and overstuffed pillows, which have been punched around since the classes began 18 months ago.

McGregor, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at the California School of Professional Psychology, instructs three weekly sessions. Rebecca Behar, a psychiatric social worker at Nimitz, helps McGregor with the girls' group; Henry Gitler, a staff psychologist, helps with the two boys' sessions.

The students are separated by gender because the model program was developed for boys, Behar said. "Aside from that, it helps to focus students better when the groups are not mixed," she said.

Principal Lupe Simpson saw a need for the program at Nimitz, the nation's second-largest middle school, with enrollment of 3,600. "Think First is teaching kids to be responsible for their own behavior because nobody else is teaching them," she said. "The kids are learning why and what makes them angry. But most of all, they are learning self-control."

About 50 Nimitz students have gone through the 10-to-15-week program, developed and co-written by Judy McBride, a Long Beach Unified School District psychologist. Results have been positive, Behar said. "Among those students, there has been a reduction of referrals to the dean for fights among students. At homes, parents have told me that there is less arguing, and in many cases grades have improved, which has been an added bonus."

During the Think First classes, McGregor and counselors boost students' self-esteem by giving points for good behavior, class participation and honest answers, and rewarding them with popcorn and sodas at the end of each session. At the completion of the course, students receive Think First diplomas during a ceremony attended by parents who, early on, agree to attend Wednesday night parenting classes at which the anger-management program is discussed.

McGregor said students become angry and sometimes violent because they come from broken families, stepfamilies and families in which a parent's girlfriend or boyfriend has moved in.

"In many homes," McGregor said, "single parents have lost control."

He also cites other reasons, such as parents who work long hours or simply aren't around enough for their children, the effect of television violence, violence at home, poverty and environments of gang violence and drug dealing.

"What you've got are some pretty angry teen-agers out there" primed to "act out how they feel," McGregor said.

He said that because children are seldom taught how to keep a lid on anger, such programs as Think First are important and necessary, especially for middle-school students who are at a crucial stage in their development.

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