In three nondescript portables tucked away on a Richland 2 high school campus, family therapist Karen Cooper-Haber and her small counseling staff spend weekday afternoons and evenings untangling the lives of troubled students.
Many of the students, suspended and possibly facing expulsion, arrive at the district’s Family Intervention Services sullen and angry, “loaded for bear,” as Cooper-Haber so colorfully puts it.
They are reluctant to unpack their past to help counselors understand why they disrupt class, engage in fights or participate in other unacceptable behaviors. And they surely don’t want their mothers, fathers, grandmothers or friends listening in, too.
But that’s just what Cooper-Haber tries to do in the family-based program she founded nine years ago. Cooper-Haber and her staff of four full-time licensed clinicians, all trained in marriage and family therapy, “widen the net” beyond the individual student to include family and friends in the hour-long counseling sessions.
They gather in couches and chairs to talk about the student’s behavior issues, analyze family conflict and figure out ways to change behaviors and attitudes. On an average weeknight, about 25 families are seen during the late afternoon and evening hours.
“The more you enlarge the system, the more opportunities you create for change,” said Cooper-Haber, an energetic marriage and family therapist who spent some years in private practice before concentrating the past 38 years on her work with at-risk students.
“What we are trying to do is get that family engaged with the school system. Sometimes they come in loaded for bear, but you look at that family and you look at that child, and there is a whole historical pattern.”
The intervention program, which serves children from kindergarten to 12th grade, is gaining attention beyond the district’s borders.
“It’s a stellar program that is clearly getting great results and it is meeting the needs of the whole child,” said Ginger Hopkins, assistant superintendent for instruction in Oconee County.
Richland 2 board chairman Calvin “Chip” Jackson and other board members are strong backers of the program and Cooper-Haber, who was awarded a prestigious honor by the Clemson-based National Dropout Prevention Center/Network for her work.
“Her holistic approach has really caught fire around the country, and school districts and teachers and administrators are tweaking and adapting that approach in a lot of different ways,” said Mark Cheatham, spokesman for the center, which operates under the auspices of Clemson’s Eugene T. Moore School of Education.
Cooper-Haber believes the program has had a hand in reducing the district’s expulsion rate from 1 percent in 2005, the year the program began, to 0.04 percent last year. Her records show that 97 percent of the students seen in Intervention Services complete the school year.
Hopkins, the Oconee assistant superintendent, visited the program with a colleague three weeks ago as her district embarks on an initiative to examine the mental health services its system offers to children.
“I don’t think what we will be doing is 100 percent exactly the same but there are certainly many good things in the program that we can take advantage of,” Hopkins said. “We want to be more ‘whole child’ and to be ‘whole child’ you have to think about the whole environment, both in and out of school.”
Seeing hope from the start
A referral to Richland 2’s Family Intervention Services is triggered by repeated misbehaviors, what the district labels as Level 1 and Level 2 offenses. They include skipping school, cheating, defiance toward teachers and administrators, vandalism, fighting and illegal use of drugs or alcohol, among others.
Three suspensions from a high school prompt a referral, but the counselors also are receiving referrals from middle and elementary school levels.
Alex Karydi, a psychologist who works part-time with the program earning credit toward her marriage and family therapy license, said making the initial connection with family can be difficult, because the child or the family may not be willing to participate in the required treatment.
There can be a stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment.
“For the most part when families come here, they are actively trying to change the circumstances of their children’s lives,” said Karydi, who works full-time at the state Department of Juvenile Justice. “You usually see hope from the start. That’s the good thing.”
Karydi works as an extern in the Richland 2 setting and sees her work as a means of heading off the scenarios she witnesses at DJJ, when troubled youngsters often receive no mental health counseling until they are part of the state juvenile justice system.
Family Intervention helps kids who may not be in organized sports or school clubs find their way through other outreach, including community service.
“When people see that it is not just talk therapy, that we are actively working together to get all their systems working together, they see how beneficial it is,” Karydi said.
There is one Spanish-speaking counselor to assist Latino families, but she could use a second bilingual counselor because the waiting list is long.
“Latino families who are recent immigrants have a unique set of needs that often go unaddressed,” Cooper-Haber said because of the lack of mental health services available in Spanish.
She recalled one Latino student who was caught in a sex act in a school bathroom, an offense that automatically placed her in line for possible expulsion. But counseling revealed generational sex abuse in the family and the girl acknowledged that she had been abused by her stepfather. Armed with that information, the teenager received help instead of punishment.
The intervention program also partners with colleges and universities to place graduate students in the program, and houses a USC Marriage, Couples and Family Counseling practicum class at the center.
Part of a comprehensive discipline program
Cooper-Haber’s intervention program, which typically lasts six to eight weeks, is one piece of a comprehensive discipline program overseen by the district’s Department of Student Services. A newly formed community task force has just begun a comprehensive look at the district’s discipline policy, including studying the impact of zero tolerance and other practices.
A Richland 2 black parents organization has expressed concern that African-American males make up the largest percentage of students who end up in both in-school and out-of-school suspension or at the district’s alternative school, Blythewood Academy.
Cooper-Haber believes working with a student and family, rather than the student alone, multiplies the opportunity for success. She has developed two other programs, Building Bridges to Success, a multi-group program offered for families of students at the alternative school.
“A child works in multiple systems – family, school, peers,” she said. “You can’t say that you can’t look at these things.”
That’s what Cooper-Haber did when “Marlon” and his family came through the door. He had a history of cutting classes and dress code violations and engaged in an altercation with another student at a bus stop. His stepfather had died and his father was incarcerated.
His mother, who worked two jobs, was worried about him and concerned that he might be enticed to join a gang to make money for the family. He, in turn, was worried about his mother’s burden of responsibilities and angry about his absent father. A grandfather joined in the discussion and provided some family relief; Marlon assured his mother he was not in a gang but was angry that a teacher had referred to him as a thug.
Eventually, a counselor recognized that while Marlon had low grades he had high standardized scores and placed him in advanced classes. He was recommended for a service leadership program developed by FIS and excelled. He graduated from high school, worked for a year and then joined the military.
Identifying advocates within the family and school system helps youngsters navigate through adolescence, a trying enough time for teenagers who don’t experience serious school and family problems, Cooper-Haber said.
So far, about 5,000 students have traveled through the program since its inception, Cooper-Haber said.
What she has learned since 2005 is that the process of helping children has got to be collaborative, involving family, school and community.
“We are part of a team,” she said, including parents, teachers, principals and school counselors. She’d like to widen that team into the community as well.
“We want to say that what we are doing makes a difference.”