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Orange Trustees Hear Appeals to Reinstate Counseling Programs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kristi Lacy remembers meeting with a counselor from the Straight Talk program when she had a death in the family and again when she was having problems with her friends.

“I am grateful these programs were available when I was having problems,” the nervous 16-year-old told Orange Unified School District trustees Thursday. “Please bring the programs back.”

Lacy’s feelings were seconded by students, counselors, parents and the PTA president, all of whom joined forces to try to convince the school board to reinstate contracts for nonprofit agencies that send counselors into schools.

Administrators had decided not to put the contracts before the board for renewal this year because conservative trustees had made clear their belief that the schools are not responsible for dealing with the personal problems of students. Schools, they have said repeatedly, should be limited to academic activities.

But after hearing from concerned residents, the three minority members of the seven-member board asked administrators to give a presentation later this month about services the three agencies--Mariposa Women’s Center, Straight Talk and Turning Point for Families--have been offering students for the past six years. The board will vote on whether to renew the contracts at its first meeting in November.

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With all the programs being paid by state drug, alcohol, and tobacco awareness funds, the district’s money is not the issue.

But counselors said the well-being of students, the atmosphere of their classrooms and even the future of society is at stake.

“I work with these young people,” said Brian Couron, a psychologist and family counselor who works with college students at Fullerton College. “Every teacher sees children, some with their heads down, some slugging other kids, because of problems in the family. These are issues that every day affect a child’s ability to learn. Without counseling, what you’ll see is a devastation of the educational process.”

Counselors who, until this year, worked in 30 of the district’s 37 schools said they saw problems as diverse as the communities served. Some students from affluent schools, like Lacy, simply needed to talk to an adult outside the family to express emotions and be reassured that they are normal.

“I wasn’t able to concentrate in school,” Lacy said Friday. “The counselor would give me different scenarios and advice. When I was talking to her about my problems, I didn’t want anyone else to know . . . It’s nice to have that extra help.”

Others expressed concern about students in low-income neighborhoods on the west side of the district, who might have problems with gangs or other issues related to poverty.

“It’s very important for counselors to go to such schools, because these are the children most in need and these are the ones who cannot pay for help,” said Moty Koppes, who counseled students at West Orange Elementary.

Koppes used puppets to help children losing parents to AIDS work through their grief. Another group therapy session she ran was composed of youngsters who were struggling with the idea of joining a gang.

“They were trying to be ‘wannabe’ types,” Koppes said. “But they were extremely fearful of the situation . . . I asked them to identify their feelings and told them how to improve their support groups.”

But Trustee Maureen Aschoff, who opposes the counseling contracts, said she plans to propose some programs she believes would achieve the same effect without having one-on-one counseling sessions. The programs would be presented to groups on campus and would emphasize values, responsibility and respect, she said.

Assistant Supt. Neil McKinnon said the difference with these programs is “everyone can see what the counselors are doing and how they are working.”

Trustee Martin Jacobson, another opponent of private, on-campus counseling, said he is worried about the school district’s liability.

“I’m worried about accountability,” he said.

But a counselor who worked in the schools said that teachers do not have the resources to fill the void.

“When there is a counselor available, the teacher doesn’t have to spend the time attempting to counsel the child,” said Karen Zager, a marriage, family and child counselor in Anaheim Hills. “If there is a chaotic home life, the children go to a trusted grown-up for stability. Teachers do not have time to be a source of stability for all kids . . . When a kid is acting out for attention, teachers can’t teach, and other kids are affected too.”

Canyon High School student Kevin Sabet, who works with the Sheriff’s Department in drug prevention programs, gave board members a scenario to consider.

“How would you like to have a policeman come to your door and say your 16-year-old child was hit on the freeway, with a blood-alcohol content twice the legal limit?” he asked.


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