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An Inside Look at Saint Leo’s Anger and Aggression Course

Curious about what causes anger and aggression and how to control these emotions? Get an exclusive look at a unique online graduate course being offered this summer by Saint Leo University with students in both its criminal justice degree programs and Master of Social Work (MSW) degree programs.

A photo of a scene in which a woman is yelling at a man and there is another man in between them who appears to be intervening to calm down the woman's anger and aggression

Anger is an emotion most of us experience at times throughout our lives. While most people who get upset can ultimately control these emotions and calm down after a while, others struggle with aggressive thinking and behavior that can spiral out of control if not dealt with properly.

An Overview of the Saint Leo Graduate Course

During the Summer I term, Saint Leo University is currently offering a graduate-level online course called Causes and Control of Anger and Aggression. Taught by Dr. Jeffrey Golden who teaches in the graduate criminal justice degree programs and Dr. Lisa Rapp-McCall of the Master of Social Work (MSW) degree programs, the curriculum provides an introduction to the causes and methods to control anger and aggression.

The class has 14 students, exemplifying Saint Leo’s commitment to small class sizes and the accessibility of the instructors in such courses. What makes this interdisciplinary class unique is that it is being team-taught by faculty who typically teach in two different graduate degree programs – criminal justice and social work. It also consists of students from both of these degree programs rather than from the same graduate degree program.

In the course, the students are examining several interdisciplinary theories on negative emotions and resulting behavior from these emotions. They are learning strategies to identify and diagnose anger and aggression, along with how to quickly and safely de-escalate situations through research-based prevention and intervention.

The class also considers Saint Leo University’s core value of community and how people working in concert together can more effectively solve problems.

From the Social Worker’s Vantage Point

Rapp-McCall is a clinical social worker who has worked on domestic violence and with juvenile offenders. She has done both in-patient and out-patient work with children and families. Now a professor for Saint Leo, she says that an individual’s past plays a key role in how that person handles emotions and the resulting behavior.

“People who are dealing with trauma from their past often find it tough to control anger and aggression,” she explains.

Plus, she says the collaboration between these two fields is increasing again.

“Social workers used to work with law enforcement years ago. It kind of fell out of fashion for a while, but now it’s becoming in vogue again. Officers are dealing with so many critical incidents every day, and they are kind of expected to act like a social worker at times. They are often dealing with people who have mental health problems, drug problems or those involved in domestic abuse situations.”

She says there are many advantages to this partnership.

“Law enforcement officers are traditionally taught to use command and control, but they have to be quiet and listen at the same time. I frequently worked with LEOs and most of them had a different mindset than what mine is. By collaborating, I think we can improve each other’s strengths.”

In terms of team-teaching with Golden, Rapp-McCall believes teaching a class with another instructor is more impactful for the students in the class.

“The bottom line is that any class will be better when you have multiple brains in the picture,” she explains. “Students receive a well-rounded perspective on the subject matter. Even though it does take a little longer to co-teach, it is worth it in the end. We were lucky to have the support of our dean, Dr. Susan Kinsella, behind us in formatting this course as we did.”

She adds that the students have hit it off quite well with each other.

“It’s kind of a trend in higher education to offer interdisciplinary courses. I think we wondered how it would go mixing social work students who tend to be more liberal thinking and criminal justice students who are generally more conservative. In this class, we’ve seen plenty of civil discourse between the two groups of students. They are communicating well with each other, and they are learning to think more critically to back up their opinions.”

From the Perspective of the Criminal Justice Instructor

Golden, an adjunct instructor of criminal justice, is also an attorney and business owner. While specializing in juvenile justice and other related areas in his career, he has spent two decades mastering and training others on the concept of de-escalation in the midst of a challenging situation. Fittingly, he operates De-Escalate.

“This is an area of research Lisa and I have always had a great interest in,” Golden explains. “Law enforcement professionals and social workers have a natural connection, but most don’t realize it. Social workers can bring out lots of useful information from the individuals they talk to, and this can help the law enforcement officer make a more educated decision about how to handle a situation.”

In the last five to seven years, he says there has been a move to put social workers on the streets and in police cars with officers. Their role is to determine where problems have stemmed from to help officers de-escalate a situation. He notes that the Pasco Sheriff’s Office has been exploring this strategy in just the last year. Plus, states like Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas have been at the forefront in mixing the two professions.

Golden says that the course offers a blend of theory and applied research on what causes anger and aggression and how it can be controlled effectively. It also looks at how criminal justice and social work professionals can work together more effectively at tackling the problems they encounter in their work.

“In essence, we’re all dealing with the same people in the end,” he says.

He has enjoyed working hand-in-hand with Rapp-McCall.

“From concept to research to course design to teaching, we have worked very well together,” he says.

A Live Zoom Workshop on Anger and Aggression

In addition to its eight-week curriculum, the course also includes a session on de-escalation. Normally held at University Campus, this year’s workshop will be facilitated virtually. Presented by the Department of Public Safety Administration, this live Zoom session is part of the course for students but is also free to any first responders interested in taking it. A participation certificate will be issued to attendees, many of whom will be able to earn continuing education units (CEUs) for their participation.

“We teach the students the science behind de-escalation based on neuroscience,” Golden explains. “We look at the parts of the brain and how they are functioning during a situation in which someone becomes angry or aggressive. We then look at specific tools for de-escalation.”

He says there are two different types of anger – deliberate and emotional. Determining which type of anger someone is expressing factors into how to best handle that person.

The session is geared toward law enforcement officers, corrections, teachers, counselors, social workers and anyone else who could benefit from this training.

Typically, the students watch short videos of scenes in which anger and aggression are present. The students then have to observe the scene and verbally express how they would de-escalate the parties involved the scenario.

“This is usually a very hands-on workshop when we can do it in person,” Golden says. “But we are making this year’s workshop about as hands-on as we possibly can virtually.”

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