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Angry? Sentence Is Not Jail Time but Class Time

July 1, 2001

Angry? Sentence Is Not Jail Time but Class Time

By TAMAR LEWIN

MIAMI -- The way people tell it in the anger management classes, the problem always starts with the other guy: "My 25-year-old son wouldn't listen to me . . ." "The man at the club wouldn't let me back in . . ." "My neighbor was yelling at me about the garbage . . ."

But the stories all end the same way: ". . . so I hit him."

There are 25 anger management classes here each week for people referred by the courts. Dade County judges require people who fought with strangers to complete 8 weeks of classes, while those whose conflicts were with people whom they knew must go for 16 weeks.

Throughout the nation, such classes have become a fixture of modern life, run by thousands of criminal justice systems, private therapists and community mental health centers.

There are classes for schoolchildren who seem out of control: Eric Harris, one of killers at Columbine High School in Colorado, completed anger management classes not long before shooting his classmates.

There are classes for parents, employees, teenagers, prisoners and police officers. On the Web, angermgmt.com advertises a $195 do-it-yourself program, with audiotapes, workbook, open-book exam and a final one-hour phone consultation. Angermgmt.org offers $575 courses for would-be anger management counselors, and $300 classes for people with anger problems.

But most of all, in nearly every county, there are classes for people ordered to attend by the court -- including such celebrities as Sean Combs, Courtney Love, Mike Tyson, Tommy Lee and Shannen Doherty.

What there is not is much data on whether these programs are working. The vast majority of programs, including the ones in Miami, have never been evaluated.

"In most jurisdictions, effectiveness has just not been an issue," said Peter Kinziger, director of the International Community Corrections Association. "There are some programs out there that have been evaluated, programs that do work, but over all we're doing it badly. It's good-intending people trying to do something to reduce violence and deal with all that anger out there."

It is easy to understand the appeal of anger management: faced with incidents of road rage, air rage or simple assault, judges see such classes -- as a pretrial diversion, part of a sentence, or a condition of probation -- as a positive, and cheaper, alternative to prison.

"We have many first-time offenders, for whom prison might not be appropriate," said Judge Samuel Slom, administrative judge of the Miami-Dade County Court's Criminal Division. "We want behavior modification, so that if someone is confronted with the same situation, they would not react the same way next time. Most of the time, as a judge, you're reactive. This is a chance to be proactive, to try to prevent trouble."

But whether the classes really prevent trouble is open to question.

"Anger management classes for people who commit crimes of anger are not a bad idea, but it depends on how it's done," said Wendy Kaminer, a scholar and critic of the therapeutic culture. "If they don't think they have a problem, and they're angry about being arrested and forced into class, they're going to be very resistant. It's naĀve to imagine there will be big changes from a few classes."

In New York City, the courts send about 3,000 people a year to one-day anger management classes, which cost $95 each, run by the Education and Assistance Corporation, a private nonprofit agency. The classes, which started with the Brooklyn district attorney's office four years ago, have been taken up by the courts in Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan.

In Miami, the Advocate Program Inc. serves more than 2,000 people a year. Judges send first offenders who have been in bar fights or clobbered their brother-in-law -- but, as in most of the country, men who beat their wives or girlfriends go to separate, more intensive programs.

The anger management classes in Miami have no set curriculum and no continuity. New members appear each week, sitting next to others who may be finishing that week. The social workers, family mediators and Advocate Program employees who lead the classes decide for themselves what and how they will teach.

Some run their classes like therapy groups, with students sitting in a circle, pouring out the furies that got them in trouble. Others lecture on basic skills for defusing conflicts.

The lack of a specific, tested curriculum is common nationwide.

"There are probably a hundred curricula out there, some of which have been shown to make a difference," Mr. Kinziger said. "But what usually happens is the county probation department gets Beth, the social worker down the road, to put together something for 10 guys on Tuesday nights, and her friend takes another 10 on Thursdays."

And, experts say, many programs do not last long enough to have much impact.

"The problem is that we're usually looking for a quick fix," said Dr. Barry Glick, whose 30-session Aggression Replacement Training curriculum has been shown in several studies to reduce juvenile offenders' recidivism. "If it took years to get a person where he is now, you can't expect to change it in six hours of class. Recently, there's been a huge amount of research on what works, but not everyone uses it."

In Hauppauge, N.Y., the Suffolk County Probation Department did review the research in developing its nine-month anger management program, a mix of skill training and therapy for aggressive teenage boys who have been in enough serious trouble to land in intensive-supervision probation. Half the boys who started the program have dropped out, but the five who are close to finishing have learned techniques to keep from blowing up, and most are doing well, the group's leaders say. But at the second-to-last class, there was trouble: one of the boys got into a fight with a classmate and beat him so badly that six days later the boy was still in the hospital.

Crislyn Jacob, a probation officer who leads the class along with a psychotherapist, asked how the fight happened.

"This kid came into the gym when he wasn't supposed to be there and started staring at me, so I stared back," the boy said. "Then I said I'd heard he wanted to fight me, and he said yeah, and tried to swing at me. I ducked, but I don't want to be punched in the face, so I punched back, and when I slammed him on the floor, I kept punching."

"So when did you have control?" Ms. Jacob asked. "Could you have left the gym? Did you have to punch him three times, on the ground, in the face?"

The boy said that the fight was inevitable.

"Was there some history there?" Ms. Jacob asked.

Yes, it turned out, the two boys had had a recent argument in the cafeteria.

One striking feature of anger management classes is that few of the stories that spill out start at the beginning. Most begin in the middle, as if the conflict came out of nowhere.

"The scenario is always that they were walking down the street, minding their own business, when all of a sudden, something happened," said Don Purce, program director of the Miami Advocate Program. "The most important thing in anger management class is to get them to start the story at the beginning, and be accountable for what happened."

Most classes teach participants to recognize the earliest signs of their irritation, and to step back and think before reacting.

Many employers want to get these same lessons across to potentially explosive employees. Of the 80 workplace seminars that Cigna Behavioral Health offers its 650 corporate clients, anger management sessions are now the most popular: requests for such seminars made up 15 percent of client requests so far this year, up from 6 percent last year and only 3 percent in 1999.

"I think we've become hypersensitive to anger, to threats, now that we've seen so many random acts of violence, where someone comes in and begins shooting," said Jeff Krause, Cigna's manager of employee assistance program operations.

In San Diego, Dr. Gina Simmons, who runs anger management classes for teenagers, says she is getting more and more calls from parents of younger children.

"There seems to be more stress, more anger and less understanding of how people can soothe themselves than there used to be," Dr. Simmons said.

There was not much calming at a recent anger management class in Miami, where 5 women and 13 men sat in folding chairs arranged in a circle, sharing their stories. Rather, the group was inflamed by a story told by a Haitian man who had been thrown in jail after he bit his 15-year- old daughter's arm.

"This is the fourth or fifth parent I've heard sent to anger management for disciplining an unruly kid," said another man, furious at the system. "Here's an innocent man, trying to discipline his children, make sure they show respect. If we don't discipline them, they'll commit murder and robbery and it'll be our fault for not disciplining them. If we do discipline them, we're bad."

There was applause as he finished. Neither Sherry Rothfield, the mediator who leads the group, nor the other participants questioned whether biting was an appropriate method of discipline. Nor did anyone object when class members told of shoving an aunt, attacking a sister, fighting with stepchildren.

"I don't think you get anywhere treating them like bad people who need to be fixed," Ms. Rothfield said after the class. "I want them to feel that they're heard. And if anyone's going to challenge their behavior, it has to come from one of them. I don't want to be the authority figure up there telling them what to do."

But whether group discussion provides an impetus to change violent behavior -- or, rather, an affirmation of it -- remains open to question. And officials of the Advocate Program said they planned to change the classes, so that participants go through a prescribed sequence of lessons.

Some people completing the Miami classes said the process was helpful. Others said they did not belong there, and had learned nothing. And a few suggested the same thing, in other words.

"I don't have an anger problem," one young man said after class. "A man at the bar disrespected my girlfriend. I had to fight. I could never let that go."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times CompanyPrivacy Information

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