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Niagara Falls hopes federal grant helps curb student absences, 'acting out'

Absenteeism and student suspensions caused by "acting out" have been a perennial problem in Niagara Falls public schools, Superintendent Mark R. Laurrie said Tuesday.

But he hopes 75 new social workers, counselors and psychologists will help curb the problems.

Rep. Brian Higgins on Tuesday announced the district will receive nearly $2.5 million over the next five years to try to improve the mental health situation in Niagara Falls schools.

"We see a lot of acting out, self-control issues, especially in the primary grades," Laurrie said. "Kicking, punching, hitting, biting. It's serious."

And it happens in all schools.

"It cross-cuts all populations, races, genders," the superintendent said. "We're trying to reduce suspensions with more restorative practices, because suspensions are contributing to our attendance issue, and we know there's got to be a better way. Mental health counseling, mental health support is a way to restoratively keep kids in school."

Laurrie said that with the federal funds, the district will hire 15 part-time employees in the first year to work with students on mental health and behavioral issues, which affect all grades and all schools, and add 15 more each subsequent year.

They will be part-time, paid interns, many of them from Niagara University, said Chandra J. Foote, dean of NU's College of Education.

"Right now, the counselors are overloaded," Foote said.

The district presently has 34 employees in those fields: 21 counselors, five social workers and eight psychologists.

"We attract students who want to serve," Foote said.

The district plans to take a risky behavior survey among students next month. Laurrie said he expects to find significant numbers of students have anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts.

"One of the reasons we don't have the best attendance rate, we believe, is that the students stay away because of mental health issues," Laurrie said.

He said 15% of Niagara Falls High School students are absent on a typical day, and he thinks mental health reasons account for much of that.

"We have quite a few school-phobics, more than you ever imagine," Laurrie said at a news conference at Niagara Street Elementary School.

"We try to do a lot of early childhood intervention, but when they're missing 18 to 25 days, that's defeating the purpose," Laurrie said.

Niagara Falls will use some of the federal money to start programs to help kids, as well as to train teachers, many of whom are confronted daily with problems that they never anticipated having to deal with.

"We can't out-counsel this," Laurrie said. "The only way to do it is to train our teachers."

"We commend Niagara Falls for doing this," Higgins said.

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