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Psychodrama Skits Help Students, Others Deal With Traumas

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dressed in black, Lauren Glass took the stage and bluntly told the crowd: “My brother was murdered on June 12, 1994.”

And half her heart was stolen, said the petite Oak Park High School senior.

Lauren was referring to the death of her stepbrother, Ronald Goldman, who was found slain with O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, outside Nicole’s Brentwood condominium nearly four years ago.

Sitting in the second row, Lauren’s family, including stepfather Fred Goldman, wiped away tears as she spoke Monday night.

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As well-known as it is, Lauren’s story was just one of many that drew strong reactions as students in Oak Park High’s peer counseling club acted out their traumas in a presentation called “Fragments.”

Many students and parents in the audience later said they identified more with skits on drinking and cancer--problems that have plagued their own families.

Evoking an emotional response from people who have experienced some of life’s pains was exactly the point of the theatrical presentation, based on a 20-year-old national movement called psychodrama, participants said.

About a dozen of 40 peer counselors at the school participated as a way to reach out to people who might otherwise feel alone.

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“You’re supposed to watch it and say, ‘Hey, that part is about me,’ ” said Kathy Grant, executive director of the Pasadena-based California Assn. of Peer Programs.

But the staged scenes on such topics as rape, ugliness, peer pressure and suicide are just the most public part of the Oak Park peer counseling group, which meets regularly to discuss issues important to the members.

Students in the group--and others elsewhere in the state--are trained by professional school counselors to solve conflicts among other students and spot warning signs. They are taught to report indications of drug abuse, problems at home or suicidal thinking.

“They’re not acting as therapists,” Grant said. “It’s kids just listening to each other, being there for support. . . . They aren’t going to give solutions, but they learn how to listen, which are skills we all need. They learn how to ask the right questions of their friends.”

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Although watching Lauren speak about her stepbrother’s death--as well as the sudden death of her biological father last year--produced tears on Monday, her peers have long been helping her cope, said Tess Wilkoff, school counselor and psychodrama leader. When O.J. Simpson’s not-guilty verdict was announced, the entire counseling group huddled together to surround Lauren, parent Cheryl DiSpaltro recalled.

During a debriefing session after the show, many of the students and parents concentrated on aspects of the program that particularly affected them.

“My mom has a disease,” one boy said, stumbling over his words.

“Well, the piece about drinking really hit me,” said a woman who brought her adult sister to the show. “Our father was an alcoholic.”

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Those admissions prompted a series of revealing comments from others in the audience.

Someone’s best friend had died. A girl’s father wanted her to stay with the family business. A couple had broken up after he promised to love her.

Baring their feelings to others who understand and listen really helps, students in the psychodrama group said.

“I know I’m a guy and I’m told I’m not supposed to cry,” said senior Jeremy Empol, who told a circle of people about dealing with his grandfather’s lung cancer. “But I know this helps me and I have an impact on other people’s lives. After a show, people come up and say, ‘Oh, you’ve helped me so much.’ ”

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Indeed, the school’s peer counselors have helped in many ways, according to the school’s professional counselors, Wilkoff and Randy McLelland.

“They’ve been invaluable to me,” McLelland said. “They are trained to be sensitive and find other kids who are hurting. And with a school of 750 students, there is always someone going through some trauma.”


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