James Redford, director of Paper Tigers, a documentary about the journey of students and teachers at a trauma-sensitive alternative high school in Walla Walla, Washington, posed a provocative question in a recent blog: can school heal children in pain?
I believe that it can.
While trauma-sensitive schools can’t erase every source of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), considering how many hours of their lives children spend in school, educators can do much to mitigate the effects of traumatic stress, and help students to build skills for resilience and well-being. At the very least, schools can refrain from further traumatizing children.
Children with disabilities and behavioral problems, in particular children of color, are regularly subjected to practices such as seclusion and restraint in school. The data conclusively prove that “zero tolerance policies” driving the school to prison pipeline disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. Given all that we know about the devastating long-term human and economic impacts of these policies and practices, I believe that we have a moral and ethical obligation to change things.
I had the opportunity to watch Paper Tigers at a recent screening hosted by ACEs Connection and the Kennedy Forum in the Washington, DC area where I currently live. The Paper Tigers story is so compelling to me because it so closely mirrors my own experiences with trauma, disability, and education.
I am a survivor of early childhood trauma, but I am lucky in that initially, my high ACE score did not interfere with my ability to concentrate and learn. Learning was actually the only thing that brought me joy growing up. It was my sole source of self-esteem.
But around age 14-15, my unaddressed trauma began to manifest in substance use and some pretty serious mental health challenges, including suicide attempts. In one long-term residential treatment facility, I was denied permission to attend classes at the local high school because I was labeled as a “flight risk." I was there for almost a year, and my “education” consisted of watching movies all day and writing silly essays about them. It completely set me behind academically. I had no hope of catching up with the rest of my class. This caused me enormous shame. The source of my self-esteem had evaporated.
When I got out of the residential treatment facility, I was funneled into a horrible, filthy group home, where I was told I would need to remain for life. I was on the verge of turning 18, with no job and no high school diploma -- on the road to poverty, addiction, and jail. I thought about suicide every single day in that place.
I begged my family to let me come home, and they agreed—on the condition that I stay clean and finish high school. Given my troubled past and diagnosis of “serious emotional disturbance (SED),” I did not return to my previous high school, but was sent to an alternative high school—Abraxas High School in San Diego, California—much like Lincoln High School portrayed in the Paper Tigers film.
Abraxas was chaotic. I remember watching several students do lines of methamphetamine in the back of the classroom during a “study period” while the teacher read a magazine, seemingly oblivious. While I know the educators must have cared, a spirit of hopelessness and apathy pervaded the school.
One of my teachers at Abraxas, Mr. O’Leno, was different. I found myself tearing up while watching Paper Tigers, because several of the scenes portraying respectful and supportive teacher-student interactions reminded me of him. While this was the early 1990s, and Mr. O’Leno was likely not trained in trauma-sensitive approaches, he instinctively knew how to work with me.
Mr. O’Leno always saw me through the lens of my strengths. He regularly asked me about my dreams and what I wanted out of life. He took the time to establish an authentic connection, and therefore I trusted him enough to disclose how my symptoms were impacting upon my ability to learn. Together we came up with a plan where I would complete my required classes for graduation at my own pace. His collaborative, strengths-based approach was the key to my success.
I will never forget when I came to pick up my diploma on a spring day in 1993. The staff in the office played a cassette recording of “Pomp and Circumstance” on a boom box. Some of them cried as I accepted my diploma. I suspect the tears were partially for my achievement, but also because such a low percentage of kids actually graduate from Abraxas High. According to 2013 statistics, the school has a 61% graduation rate, compared with the rest of the school district, which has a 94% graduation rate. Only 55% of students with disabilities graduate from Abraxas, compared with 79% graduating district-wide.
I often wonder what might have happened to me if I didn’t have a Mr. O’Leno in my life at that critical, vulnerable time. And I think about all the kids today who don’t have a Mr. O’Leno in their lives.
It has been deeply encouraging to learn about the growing movement across the U.S. to create trauma-sensitive schools and to institute restorative justice programs. ACEs Connection has been a valuable source of information about initiatives happening in places like Cherokee Point Elementary in San Diego, several elementary schools in Spokane, WA, schools in San Francisco, a high school in Blaine, MN, and West Seattle Elementary.
I’ve also learned that Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia have issued a restorative justice approach district-wide, as has the Oakland Unified School District. The District of Columbia City Council is holding a public hearing later this month on “the value of investing in trauma-informed public schools and support services,” hopefully a step towards adopting these approaches across DC Public Schools.
In recent years, school culture change has typically happened when individual educators, like Lincoln High School’s former principal, Jim Sporleder, learned about trauma and ACEs and decided to adopt a trauma-sensitive school model. But we shouldn’t place the full burden on individuals to be the drivers of change. We need sound policies to support all educators and administrators to move in this brave new direction.
I have been especially heartened by the landmark lawsuit filed recently in Compton, California. If this lawsuit is successful, it will mandate that all public schools in the state, including my former high school, adopt trauma-sensitive approaches. These are the kinds of policies we deeply need in every state and on the federal level.
I look forward to the day when the trauma-sensitive school/restorative justice movement ensures that every young person is empowered to realize their dreams — not as a matter of chance, as in my case – but as a matter of course.