Phila. schools struggle to treat behavioral cases

Posted: May 21, 2007

At age 8, Sharif Goff brims with anger, so much anger he often doesn't know what to do.

His father has been in jail for more than six years. A 31-year-old half-brother who had become like a father to him was shot to death when Sharif was in kindergarten. Another half-brother with a similar bond to Sharif was shot and paralyzed in 2005.

If his school could do one thing to help him, he says, he would ask for "something to punch."

Short of that, the youngster in late March swung at a parent volunteer at Longstreth School in West Philadelphia, catching her in the nose and landing him in trouble - again.

It was the latest in a long string of conflicts for Sharif: He went through three kindergarten teachers. He was kicked out of day care when he was 6. He lasted less than two months in a charter school. And he has had more than his share of tussles at Longstreth.

Only when school officials began disciplining Sharif for the assault on the parent volunteer did they discover he wasn't getting the help he was supposed to get to deal with his anger.

Sharif represents a growing number of youngsters coming to school with behavioral problems, said Brenda B. Taylor, an associate superintendent who oversees special education in the district. The district is still trying to figure out how best to help them and how to streamline communication among agencies that provide care for them, she said. About 880 students are in the behavioral programs, which didn't exist a few years ago. More programs are in the planning, she said.

Not all of these students, including Sharif, are classified as special-education students, although they have "behavioral disabilities" that entitle them to the same services, Taylor said.

School officials had talked about a plan to coordinate services between the district and a behavioral health agency months before the assault, but that plan hadn't been enacted.

"It was clearly a case of a breakdown in communication," Taylor said.

The city's Community Behavioral Health Department this school year assigned a therapeutic support worker to shadow Sharif during the school day and help him with his behavior.

Sharif's mother, Dawn Floyd, 32, a technician at Keystone Mercy Health Plan, sought help for Sharif on her own. She takes him boy to Presbyterian Children's Village for counseling. Sharif, she said, is on Ritalin to control his diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But he's very bright, she said, noting that he tests above grade level in reading and math.

Sharif has an easy smile that can turn to a scowl in the blink of an eye as his emotions shift. One recent afternoon, he buried his head in his arms when his mother ordered him to sit.

He flashed an angry grimace when she told him to lift his head. "You're going to mess your face up for the pictures," Floyd warned gently, referring to the Inquirer photographer.

Sharif instantly flashed a broad smile.

Sharif began acting out when he was in kindergarten - six months after he sustained the loss of his 31-year-old half-brother, Shannon, who had become a father figure to him. Shannon was shot and killed, Floyd said.

Sharif, who played and watched sports with Shannon, remembers being at the funeral and believes he saw Shannon's spirit come out of the body.

"It was kind of like smoke," Sharif recalled. "I thought he would turn into bones while we were there."

While in the church, Sharif broke down and cried.

"I don't know if he realized it right then and there what death was," Floyd said.

At Harrington School, Sharif was transferred out of his kindergarten class when the behavior started. He lasted a week or two in the second class and then was moved to a third for the same reason, his mother said. Problems persisted, but there were no other kindergarten classes to try, Floyd said.

"By then, it was the end of the school year, and they were calling me to come get him every day," she said.

Floyd thought a change of environment might help. She enrolled Sharif in first grade at the Renaissance Charter School. But after he fought with other children and had tantrums, she moved him again, this time to Longstreth.

Last year, another of Sharif's half-brothers, also an adult, was shot in the back and paralyzed, Floyd said. Sharif was hurt again.

"There's no real male role models in his life and those that were were taken away in one way or another," Floyd said.

Sharif agrees that he's angry and doesn't know what to do with his anger.

He said he doesn't like "people holding me, grabbing me, and in my face and stuff."

The day he swung at the parent volunteer, he said, he thought she was going to hit him.

He ignored an order from her to return to his seat and made a face. She "got up in my face," he said. So he swung first.

The school district declined to make the parent volunteer available for comment.

The school suspended Sharif for five days. Sharif was discouraged, Floyd said.

"The morale just went down," she said.

School staff, Floyd said, had talked about transferring Sharif out of Longstreth to another elementary school. The district's Taylor, however, said that was not under consideration.

Chris Berglund, a social service agency worker familiar with the case, said the school was looking to transfer Sharif until he began asking questions. It would have been unfair to move Sharif when the system was failing to give him what he needed, Berglund said.

"It was such a complete and utter breakdown on both sides of the fence: the behavioral health side, my side," he said, taking part of the blame, "and the school's side, the education side."

There are limits to what the district can do with students as young as Sharif. Students must be in at least third grade to attend special classes for disruptive students.

Since the incident, the school has worked on a plan to help with Sharif's behavior, Taylor said.

Floyd said she hoped school staff would listen to her son and understand that some things they say hurt his feelings and trigger his anger.

"Instead of crying, he'll get angry. That's how he'll show the emotion," she said.

Sharif is an active boy with seemingly boundless energy. On a walk to the playground, he flipped into hand stands, break-danced, and ran full steam toward a tree, grabbing a branch and swinging around it.

Sharif's father, who is in prison on drug-related charges, will be getting out of jail soon and plans to rejoin the family, Floyd said. Sharif wants to ride bikes with his father and play basketball and football, he said.

"I try to stress to Sharif that he has a father who wants to be with him," Floyd said. "I said, 'Be thankful you do have a father.' I try to have him look at it that way. But he might be too young to understand that."

She hopes Sharif can get help somewhere for his anger. The counseling program at Children's Village offers some help, she said.

"If he can control that anger," she said, "school will be a breeze."


 

For video interviews and previous articles on violence against teachers, go to http://go.philly.com/teachersafety


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

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