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.