Reacting to the growing number of pupil suspensions during the past five years since the onset of widespread busing for racial balance in the Prince George's County school system, a community group has launched a program designed to help students having problems which are directly related to desegregation.
The project, funded by the Health, Education and Welfare Department, is designed to counsel students so they will be able to deal with their new environments and avoid confrontations which often lead to suspensions.
Since court-ordered busing began in Prince George's County on Jan. 29, 1973, the suspension, rate has more than doubled - going from 8,000 to 17,000 in the first three years of busing.
Many of those suspensions, according to those who set up the program, have resulted from problems inherent in almost any suddenly integrated school system.
"The first month that busing was really under way, in March 1973, there were more suspensions than there had been during the entire school year up until then," Elois Hamilton, director of the new program, pointed out. "I think you can attribute a lot of that to problems which developed with the desegregation plan."
Hamilton said she first became aware of the suspension problem in 1974 when statistics showed that suspensions among blacks, many of them junior high school males, had almost tripled in one year.
With HEW funding she set up programs during 1975-76 and 1976-77, which worked to get suspended students back into school. This project, which is working with $97,000 in HEW funds this year, is more ambitious.
"What we're going to try to do is stop the suspensions before they happen," explained Elois Hamilton, who heads the new project. "A lot of these kids haven't been able to adapt to desegragation. We're going to try to teach them how to deal with situations so they don't get suspended."
Working out of a small garden apartment in the Village Green secction of Landover, Hamilton, her staff of five and a group of volunteers are hoping to counsel and tutor 400 students with problems related to desegregation before the school year is over."
Their program is divided into three sections.
According to Hamilton, each part of the program is designed to combat a problem which has come about at least partly because of desegregation.
"The counseling on communications is a key for us," she said. "We know that if these kids can be taught how to communicate with people who aren't just like them, teachers in Bowie or kids from Bowie for example, they can stay out of trouble. But they have to learn control. And we have to show them how to stay under control."
Secondly, there is a tutoring program for students who are falling behind. This is to combat the phenomenon of "pushouts" - slower students whose needs may be ignored by overworked teachers.
"We were amazed when we first moved in here," said Hamilton. "We had thought that the kids were starting to drop out in large numbers in 10th grade but we found a lot of them doing it in 8th and 9th grade.
"Pushouts aren't all of it though. When we first set up, a lot of kids thought we were here to help them find jobs or something and they were all over the place. A lot of them get to these schools and they look at their clothes and feel embarrassed. So they think they need a job to earn money for clothes."
Which leads to the third phase of the program: to help students find jobs after graduation, not before; to convince older students that it's worth staying in school long enough to get the diploma because of better job opportunities.
Hamilton and the members of her group are concentrating solely on the Village Green neighborhood which consists largely of lower middle class garden apartments. Their target schools are Belair, Greenbelt, and Samuel Ogle, junior high schools and Largo and Bowie high schools.
Since opening the office three months ago, the staff has been trying to let people in the neighborhood know what they are doing through direct contact and with flyers advertising, "positive Student Programs."
One of the reasons these methods are necessary is an administrative directive which prohibits school principals from directly referring students to a program not connected to the county school system.
"What happens because the schools can't let us know when a kid is having trouble is that very often the first hint of trouble is when the kid comes home suspended or with failing grades on his report card," Hamilton said. "We've got to get out in the community and convince kids that they should come see us before serious trouble develops."
When the program is in full swing there will be four counseling groups and about 20 tutors at work. Hamilton and Lagerwerff would like to involve parents eventually.
"Alienation is a problem with husband too," said psychologist Meta Lagerwerff, who is working with Hamilton on the project. "The two groups of kids can't understand each other's lifestyles. Neither can their parents. We'd like to get kids and parents from both groups together just to talk, so maybe they can understand each other a little.