October 2020 | Volume 78 | Number 2
Trauma-Sensitive Schools Pages 14-19
To fully support students, schools must attend to the trauma that occurs within their own institutional cultures.
"I have a story for you," Shari said as she jogged toward me.
I had spent the day with her high school's administrative team discussing an equity assessment they hoped to conduct.
A major challenge at this school, as in many schools, was the leadership team's habit of embracing shiny new program after shiny new program rather than addressing deep institutional problems. Their latest shiny new program was trauma-informed education. That August, teachers attended two days of trauma-informed training. Counselors learned to identify students who carry the impact of trauma to school. It was a core focus for the school year.
"I'm a queer Black woman. Transgender," Shari said. As far as she knew, she was the only out transgender student at her school.
Several weeks prior, Shari explained, her counselor administered a survey to her. "He asked personal questions about my life, what I've experienced at home. It was intrusive," she said.
After the survey, Shari had asked more about it. "He called it ACEs," she shared, "for adverse childhood experiences."
"Here's what I want you to know," she told me now. "By a huge margin, the most adverse experiences in my life have happened here. My biggest source of trauma is how I'm treated at this school. That's what I told my counselor."
"How did he respond?"
"He said there was nothing on the ACEs questionnaire about that."
Shari described unrelenting transphobic and racist bullying, teachers refusing to use her preferred pronouns or her name, her absolute invisibility in health and other curricula, and other conditions that made school the bane of her well-being.
Is this what a trauma-informed school looks like?
All in on Trauma-Informed Education
When I share Shari's story, some educators assume I'm a critic of trauma-informed education. It's true, I am concerned about schools taking what I call the shiny new thing equity detour (Gorski, 2019)—embracing a program to solve institutional problems that a program, however popular, can't possibly solve.
But I'm also a champion of trauma-informed education, something I came by through experience. As an elementary-aged child, I was sexually abused repeatedly by an older boy who lived in my neighborhood. I know something of trauma.
I carried that trauma everywhere: soccer practice, the dinner table, school. And I behaved in perfectly reasonable ways for a sexually abused child to behave (Everstine & Everstine, 2015). I was restless. I passionately resisted being in confined spaces with adults.
Teachers called this "acting up." They punished me for little behaviors that I now know were proportionate to my trauma (as, really, any behavior is for a sexually abused child). Then, because I received poor behavior assessments, I was punished at home. I can't recall anyone being curious about why I behaved the way I did. There was no root cause behavior analysis, just reactive rule-flinging.
So, I'm all in on trauma-informed education—by which I mean I'm all in on what it can be if we commit to applying it mindfully and equitably.