Child abuse, safety focus of program

200 from agencies gather for workshops, speakers

Carroll County

October 31, 2004|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Almost 200 people from public and private agencies attended the Carroll County Response to Family Violence Conference, a daylong program of speakers and workshops on child abuse and youth violence at Carroll Community College.

The program Friday was organized by the county's Local Management Board and the Domestic Violence Coordinating Council for public and private organizations, with a $37,000 state grant from the Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

Clifton Files, a lawyer and social worker with Family and Children's Services of Baltimore County, closed the session by recounting the effect on his family after his father murdered his mother when Files was a 7-year-old boy in a small Indiana town.

"Batterers are often very nice people, until you get them home," said Files, who is a deacon and a director of prison ministries.

As Files grew older, he said, he was "too controlling, lacked the ability to interact. ... Trauma will have some kind of impact on your life. As we work with the children, remember the vestiges of that abuse."

One of the six workshops at the conference was about youth violence. It outlined approaches to dealing with suicide, self-injury and serious threats of violence in the Carroll County public school system.

Barbara Guthrie, the system's supervisor of guidance, recalled the death of one of her students at North Carroll High School in the early 1980s, when she was a relatively new counselor. Neither the county nor the state seemed to have a good plan for dealing with suicide, she said.

"We've come a long way in 23 years," she said.

Available options now include referrals to mental health services or to the private, nonprofit Youth Service Bureau, and there is an emphasis on intervention - including the message to students that reporting a peer's suspected suicidal behavior might save a life.

Last year, the schools implemented a program for dealing with self-injury, such as cutting or burning.

Pupils who engage in this behavior also are referred to the Youth Service Bureau for assessment, she said.

The third category - regarding serious threats of violence - was a difficult policy to write, said Cynthia Little, the schools' director of student services. For example, she said, administrators wanted it to cover behavior such as an incident last year in which a pupil held a lead pipe to the back of another's neck, saying it was a gun.

"Fortunately, it was not a gun - but it felt like a gun," she said.

A mandatory assessment is performed in these cases, she said.

The policies were adopted several months before Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999, scattering pipe bombs and gunning down 12 classmates and a teacher before killing themselves.

"After Columbine, a lot of school systems were struggling," Little said, and others looked to Carroll's policies. She said she remains troubled by the casual use of expressions such as, "If you do that again, I'm going to kill you." Such talk is prohibited in the schools.

Among the handouts at the workshop, Little referred to a pie chart showing that 80 percent of the Carroll students recommended for alternate placement during the last school year rated "moderate" or higher in their assessments for violence. A bar graph showed there were 71 referrals and 67 violence evaluations that year.

Another handout was a suicide log for last school year, showing one death and more than 440 interventions recorded by school staff. The increasing numbers of pupils on the suicide log - especially girls in the eighth to 10th grades - drew gasps of surprise from participants.

Suicide threats, no matter how frivolous they might appear, should not be ignored, Guthrie said.

The Youth Service Bureau plans a course of action for students, working with the school system, said its clinical supervisor, Gary Honeman.

Although a call reporting any of these behaviors can be frightening for a parent, he said, "Crisis is opportunity. Energizing parents and family members very quickly to protect and nurture and mobilize resources for the child is what this is all about."

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