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Courts and Schools Confront Challenges Faced by Traumatized Youth

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it hard to turn on the news these days.  It seems like there is a constant barrage of stories about violence, including recent spikes in the murder rates for several American cities. As a former school social worker, the stories hit close to home as I think about the elementary school students who used to fill me in on the latest shooting or murder in the neighborhood. They would generally recount the stories with little emotion, as if these were just expected events. Of course, the kids telling me these stories were also the ones who were sent to my office for getting into fights on the playground, being disruptive in class, or disrespectful to a teacher.

I’d do my best to work with the kids to learn new ways to deal with the symptoms of trauma they were exhibiting. I’d also try to enlist the teachers in finding different ways to respond to the outbursts. While the teachers were all dedicated to their students, they also had lessons to teach, and many of them had more than a handful of kids who would disrupt class on a daily basis. They were ill-equipped to deal with kids who were grappling with chronic trauma, and I felt like there were never enough hours in the day to address all the need.

Eight students from Compton, California, are tackling the problem of traumatized students in their schools head on: they have filed a lawsuit. The litigation alleges that the district has failed to adequately meet the needs of students who have been traumatized as a result of exposure to abuse and violence, calling on the school district to provide training for teachers and administrators to help them recognize and understand the effects of trauma. In a nut shell, the students argue that trauma should be considered a disability – just like ADHD or dyslexia – and should qualify them to receive federally-mandated special education services that could include additional academic and mental health services. If the school district is found liable, schools across the country could be required to consider “complex trauma” as a disability, qualifying many more students for additional services.

While the eventual outcome of the lawsuit is uncertain, it is clear that trauma, especially during childhood, results in changes to the brain that can make it difficult to concentrate, deal with strong emotions, and engage in effective problem-solving – all of which are pretty important if you’re trying to learn to read or to solve an algebra problem! It’s important to recognize that while children and youth in inner city neighborhoods like Compton might be exposed to higher levels of violence, the problem is much more widespread. For example, it is estimated that one in four children will experience some form of child maltreatment in their lifetimes. Other research estimates that one in four children will be exposed to domestic violence in their lifetimes. With numbers like these, it’s a pretty safe bet that almost every school – and most classrooms – across the country has students who either have a history of trauma or who are in the midst of a traumatic experience.

Given that we know trauma has serious consequences for youth and exposure to traumatic events such as maltreatment and domestic violence in childhood is widespread, what can be done?  It seems clear that youth experiencing trauma need to have better access to high-quality mental health services. Many schools across the country now have mental health professionals on-site, helping to reduce some of the barriers to accessing treatment.  However, who is referred for those services is dependent on having adults who are trained in recognizing that misbehavior may be more indicative of trauma than defiance.

Child Trends recently evaluated the evidence for an Integrated Student Supports approach to addressing non-academic barriers to learning that calls for screening students for mental and behavioral health needs. The approach also calls for implementing a tiered approach to addressing those needs, ranging from school-wide programs, to programs for kids who are at an elevated risk for poor outcomes, to treatment for youth with identified needs.  While research in this field is emerging, the evidence we reviewed suggests that this is a promising approach not only for addressing mental and behavioral health needs, but also for improving academic performance.

In addition to increasing access to needed services for traumatized youth, the Compton lawsuit highlights the need for increasing training for teachers and school administrators. When it comes to the way adults in schools interact with traumatized youth, there are some lessons that can be learned from the child welfare and mental health systems. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a leader in the movement to promote trauma-informed approaches, defines it as “A program, organization, or system that realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma; responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.”

KVC Behavioral Healthcare, Inc., in Kansas City is an example of a youth-serving agency that is integrating a trauma-informed approach across multiple settings. Not only have they incorporated a trauma-informed approach to working with youth in the foster care system in Kansas, but they have expanded that work to include training of adults who work with these youth, including teachers. Child Trends is currently conducting an evaluation of  KVC’s trauma-informed care approach and will report in the coming months on the findings from this study.

The federal government has also taken a leadership role in helping schools to support students with a history of trauma.  For example, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice recently sponsored a day-long “Rethink Discipline” conference at the White House, focusing on creating positive school climates and implementing supportive school discipline practices. The Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students (OSHS) Project Prevent grants are providing funding for schools to increase their capacity to identify, intervene, and support students exposed to traumatic events. The 22 school district-level Project Prevent grantees are just concluding their first year of work but, while waiting to see the results of their efforts, it’s notable that the federal education sector has set this as a funding priority.

As a former school social worker and a researcher, I’ll be interested to see how the lawsuit against the Compton School District turns out. I’m hopeful that it will expand the national conversation beyond the need to increase access to high-quality treatment – which is critical– and towards helping school systems to see students with behavior problems as potential survivors of trauma rather than as merely unruly and defiant troublemakers. Perhaps this case will encourage states to require trauma-focused trainings for teacher licensure, school districts to provide more training to teachers and administrators, and teacher education programs across the country to prioritize trauma awareness as a 21st century teaching imperative.

And for those of you working in schools, consider checking out the National Child Traumatic Stress Network; they’ve got lots of great information,  including hundreds of trauma-focused, free continuing education on-line classes for mental health professionals. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments also has lots of helpful resources.

Brandon Stratford, Research Scientist


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