Trying to make LA schools less toxic is hit-and-miss; relatively few students receive care they need

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The Peacemakers of Harmony Elementary School in Los Angeles, CA.

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For millions of troubled children across the country, schools have been toxic places. That’s not just because many schools don’t control bullying by students or teachers, but because they enforce arbitrary and discriminatory zero tolerance school discipline policies, such as suspensions for “willful defiance”. Many also ignore the kids who sit in the back of the room and don’t engage – the ones called “lazy” or “unmotivated” – and who are likely to drop out of school.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which banned suspensions for willful defiance last May, the CBITS program (pronounced SEE-bits), aims to find and help troubled students before their reactions to their own trauma trigger a punitive response from their school environment, including a teacher or principal.

Gabriella Garcia’s son attended Harmony Elementary School during the 2012-2013 school year. The school has 730 children in kindergarten through fifth grade. She says without CBITS, she would have lost custody of him and her other two children. “But for some reason,” she says, “I let him (her son) take that test.”

“That test” is a questionnaire given to some of the fifth-grade students at the school, which is located in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood south of downtown Los Angeles.

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Every semester, Lauren Maher, a psychiatric social worker, gives all the children in Harmony’s fifth grade a brightly colored flyer to take home. It asks the parent to give permission for her or his child to fill out a questionnaire about events the child may have experienced in, or away from, school. “Has anyone close to you died?” “Have you yourself been slapped, punched, or hit by someone?” “Have you had trouble concentrating (for example, losing track of a story on television, forgetting what you read, not paying attention in class)?” are three of the 45 questions.

Garcia’s son was one of a small group of students whose answers on the questionnaire, as well as his grades and behavior, were showing signs that he was suffering trauma. He joined one of the two groups, each with eight students that met once a week for 10 weeks at the school. In the group, the students don’t

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Top U.S. health philanthropy – Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – awards ACEs Connection Network $384,000

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As part of its commitment to improving the health of the nation’s most vulnerable people and building a culture of health, the nation’s largest health-focused philanthropy, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recently awarded a $384,000, two-year grant to the ACEs Connection Network.

Jane Stevens, a long-time health, science and technology journalist, launched the network two years ago. It comprises ACEsConnection.com, a community of practice social network, and its accompanying news site, ACEsTooHigh.com.

ACEsTooHigh publishes news, features, essays and analysis for the general public about the short- and long-term consequences of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The site has received more than one million page views over the last two years. Its stories are also distributed to other media sites, including The Huffington Post and SocialJusticeSolutions.com. With the additional resources provided by the grant, the site will feature more stories about how people and communities are implementing practices based on ACEs research and concepts, and distribute these stories more widely.

The grant will also help grow ACEsConnection, ACEsTooHigh’s companion community of practice social network, from its current 2,000 members to 8,000 participants and more than 100 groups. ACEsConnection links people – online and face-to-face — who are implementing trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on adverse childhood experiences research. ACEsConnection participants include physicians, judges, social workers, nurses, academics, educators, legislators, advocates, philanthropists, peer support specialists, probation and parole officers, therapists, researchers, members of the faith-based community, writers, documentary producers, business owners, artists, and community officials.

The first five members of the ACEs Connection Network team are:

  • Valerie Krist, graphic designer for ACEsConnection and ACEsTooHigh. She also provides design assistance for group pages on ACEsConnection, and creates infographics for selected articles.
  • Sylvia Paull, a well-known network marketing strategist, develops marketing materials, strategic partnerships, outreach strategies, and new distribution channels for content.
  • Jasmine Pettis, a Masters of Public Health student at San Jose State University, is ACEsConnection’s information specialist.
  • Elizabeth Prewitt, ACEsConnection community manager, also does policy analysis for both sites. Formerly, she was director of public policy for the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors and director of government affairs and public policy for the American College of Physicians.
  • Joanna Weill, ACEs Connection Network intern. She is working on her doctorate in social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on the experiences and relationships that put people at risk for criminal behavior and recidivism.

Dr. Jeffrey Brenner: “I believe ACE scores should become a vital sign, as important as height, weight, and blood pressure.”

This video looks at the relationship between ACEs and hospital emergency rooms.

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Dr. Jeffrey Brenner is founder and executive director of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, and a 2013 MacArthur Foundation genius award winner. He did groundbreaking work in Camden, N.J., by using data to identify people who were hospital emergency room “frequent fliers”. He found that between their trips to the ER, little or nothing was done to help them improve their health. So, he began putting basic services in place to help these people. His work was written up in a New Yorker article — The Hot Spotters, by Dr. Atul Gawande — in  2011.

That article sent a shock of electricity through me — not only because it was so well written, but because Brenner was on to a solution for markedly reducing health care costs. However, it seemed to me that there was a piece missing —  if Brenner knew about the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, he (and other physicians) might be able to identify the people who suffer most in our society more quickly.

Today, an essay Brenner wrote about how the medical community has neglected the ACE Study, even though its findings were published in 1998, appeared on Philly.com’s The Field Clinic blog. It’s well worth a read. Here’s part of it:  

For nearly 15 years we’ve had the secret to delivering better care at lower cost in America.  The information has sat, hidden away in the medical literature, and barely mentioned among physicians.  It’s a remarkable story of bias. The neglect of this information by the medical community tells you a lot about our failings as a profession and the poor training we receive.  It’s also a powerful commentary on the values of our society and the biases built into our society’s view of health and healthcare.

In the 1990’s, a physician at Kaiser Permanente in California, Dr. Vincent Felitti, conducted a mail survey with 17,000 middle class patients.  He asked them questions about traumatic events that might have happened to them as children.  Incredibly, over 70% of people receiving the survey responded, and they gave permission to connect their survey answers to their medical records.

….In the work that I do in the City of Camden building interventions for high-cost complex

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San Francisco’s El Dorado Elementary uses trauma-informed & restorative practices; suspensions drop 89%

El Dorado Elementary School Principal Silvia Cordero announces one of the winners of the weekly student-of-the-week award.

El Dorado Elementary School Principal Silvia Cordero announces one of the winners of the weekly student-of-the-week award.

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For one young student – let’s call him Martin — the 2012-2013 school year at El Dorado Elementary in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood of San Francisco was a tough one, recalls Joyce Dorado, director of UCSF HEARTS — Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools.

“He was hurting himself in the classroom, kicking the teacher, just blowing out of class many times a week.” There was good reason. The five-year-old was exposed to chronic violence and suffered traumatic losses. His explosions were normal reactions to events that overwhelmed him.

This year, Martin’s doing better. That’s because he spent months working with a HEARTS therapist, and that therapist worked with his teachers and other school staff to create a more safe and supportive learning environment. Still, on days when he feels extremely anxious, Martin sometimes asks to visit the school’s Wellness Center, a small, bright room stocked with comforting places to sit, headphones to listen to music, and soft and squishy toys.

“If a student starts to lose it, the teacher can give the kid a pass to go to the Wellness Center,” says Dorado. “The kid signs in, circles emotions on a ‘feelings’ chart (to help the person who staffs the center understand how to help the child). The staff member starts a timer. The kid gets five to 10 minutes. The kid can sit on the couch with a blanket, listen to music, squeeze rubber balls to relieve tension and anger, or talk to the staff member. Kids who use the room calm down so that they can go back to class. It’s not a punishment room. It’s not a time-out room. It’s not an in-school suspension room. It’s a room where you feel better going out than when you went in.”

One day this year, as school staff members are meeting in the Wellness Center, Martin bursts in. “I need to borrow something,” he tells them. “Somebody needs my help.”

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At Reedley (CA) High School, suspensions drop 40%, expulsions 80% in two years with PBIS, restorative justice; but going the distance might require more tools

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In 2009, when the Kings Canyon Unified School District in California’s rural Central Valley offered its 19 schools the opportunity to adopt a system that would reduce school suspensions and expulsions, Reedley High School jumped at the chance.

Today, Reedley is in its fourth year of changing a zero-tolerance policy that has failed this school and community miserably, just as every zero-tolerance policy across the country has. The school, which has 1,900 students, is feeling its way out of those draconian days by integrating PBIS — Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support — and entering into a unique partnership with the West Coast Mennonite Central Committee and the local police department to implement a successful restorative justice program.

This approach is already having remarkable effect. The school saw a 40% drop in suspensions from the 2010-2011 to the 2012-2013 school year — from 401 to 249 suspensions involving 198 and 80 students, respectively. Expulsions went from 94 in 2010-2011 to 20 last year. But this year’s trends indicate that impressive decline may have stalled out.

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Tom Ska “sex talk” doesn’t shy away from addressing assault and abuse

One of the reasons British director and comedian Tom Ska did this 7-minute video about sex is that the first time he had sex, he was forced into it. As you’ll see below, that may have inspired him to address sexual assault in his version of the “the sex talk”:

I made this video because I never had ‘the talk’ and instead “learned” everything about sex through the Internet and society as a whole. In short: I had a pretty unhealthy and ill-informed understanding of sex, sexualities and sexism. I also look at my audience and see a lot of young adults and teenagers who, much like I was, are in need of a little education. When a third of women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes it means at least 1 in every 9 of my subscribers will face sexual abuse at some point. I simply don’t feel comfortable just ignoring a statistic like that when I potentially have the ability to inform people at potentially stop even ONE instance of sexual assault, rape, bullying, unwanted pregnancy, shame and overall ignorance.

Suspensions plummet with peer mediation, but at this school, it’s just another program that’s going away

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Mt. Diablo High School peer mediators Cheyna Reed, Dajon (Broddy) Mathis, Ashley Holmes and Kristen Burns.

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In May 2011, Mt. Diablo High School in Concord, CA, hired social worker Deonne Wesley to coordinate a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Safe and Supportive Schools program. The program was set up to “create and support safe and drug-free learning environments and to increase academic success for students in these high-risk schools”.

It took a year for California to lay the foundation for the program, and another year for each of the 58 participating school districts to hire staff. At Mt. Diablo, which has 1,340 students, the program was up and running during the 2012-2013 school year.

Wesley trained 18 students to be peer mediators to work with students who were suspended for fighting, and to help prevent fights.

Those mediators worked with 46 students who had racked up 51 days of suspension for fighting in school. The peer mediators, with Wesley supervising, helped the students talk out the dispute and come to an agreement on how to avoid further conflict. Afterwards, the number of suspensions for those 46 students dropped to 19 for the rest of the school year.

The grant also funded a part-time drug and alcohol counselor. She led four eight-week workshops and two ongoing harm-reduction groups. Prior to attending the workshops, 80 students who attended at least two workshops had accumulated 242 days of suspensions. After they attended the workshops, the suspensions in that group dropped to six.

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Many ways to leave the res; military spouses in dire straits; doing prisons differently

alexieIn the realm of thought-provoking writing about the short and long-term consequences of childhood adversity over the last month, these three articles stood out. Perhaps you might find them of interest, too.

When poet, writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie talked with Atlantic.com’s Joe Fassler, he said that he almost didn’t become a writer (and the world would be without The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven). But when he read this line in “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile”, a poem by Adrian C. Louis  – “Oh, uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind” — he immediately decided to become a poet.

The interview explores what that line means now to Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He says it describes how people are stuck in their own mental prisons, including the prisons of the abusive families of their childhoods. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the interview, which is well worth a read:

Now I am actively and publicly advocating for Native kids to leave the reservation as soon as they can. The reservation system was created by the U.S. Military. It was an act of war. Why do we make them sacred now, even though most reservations are really third-world, horrible banana republics? I think “I’m in the reservation of my mind” has an incredibly destructive connotation for me now. It’s apocalyptic, when I think about it. The human journey has always been about movement. And a century ago, when we moved onto the reservation, my tribe stopped moving. All the innovation we’ve done since then has been just modeling after Europeans. I mean, our greatest successes are casinos! So, “I’m in the reservation of my mind”

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In Vallejo, CA, schools — where referrals, suspensions, expulsions outnumbered students 5 to 1– there’s no place to go but up

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Dr. Ramona Bishop in her office in a building that was once part of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, CA.

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When Dr. Ramona Bishop walked into her office on April Fool’s Day in 2011, the Vallejo schools had hit rock-bottom: The system had been in receivership since 2004. Its 14,000 students were racking up nearly 80,000 referrals, suspensions, and expulsions that school year, making it one of the top ten suspending schools in the state. Academic scores had tanked. Only half the students were making it to graduation. And morale? What morale?

The City of Vallejo had just dragged itself out of a 2008 bankruptcy resulting from the double whammy of the housing bubble and the 1996 closing of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. It emerged emaciated, with all services cut to the bone.

Bishop couldn’t have asked for a more challenging job.

But this woman likes doing turn-arounds. She did one on a smaller scale when she was principal

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Want your ACE score? Now there’s an app for that!

ACE icon Ever wonder why you, your relatives or friends can’t stop smoking, over-eating, drinking, doing meth or other drugs? Why you’re a workaholic, a rage-aholic or shopaholic? Why you’ve shed marriages like a snake sheds skins? Or why you have trouble keeping a job or making friends?

Maybe it has something to do with your — or their — ACE score.

Many people who learn about the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) and take a 10-question survey based on its findings say two things: “Now my life makes sense,” and “Why didn’t someone tell me about this years ago?”

The ACE Study uncovered a stunning link between childhood trauma and the adult onset of chronic disease, social and emotional problems.

The study’s researchers – Drs. Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti — measured 10 types of childhood

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