Landmark lawsuit filed in California to make trauma-informed practices mandatory for all public schools

KimberlyCervantes

Kimberly Cervantes, student-plaintiff in law suit against Compton Unified School District in California.

A landmark first step was taken today to insure that all public schools in the United States be legally required to address the unique learning needs of children affected by adverse childhood experiences.

A class action suit on behalf of five students and three teachers in the Compton Unified School District in Compton, CA, was filed by Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm, and Irell & Manella LLP. The civic law suit demands that Comptom schools incorporate proven practices that address trauma, in the same way public schools have adapted and evolved in past decades to help students who experience physical or other barriers to learning.

The plaintiffs’ legal team is relying on research demonstrating clearly that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are a barrier to academic success for millions of children (see Spokane, WA, students’ trauma prompts search for solutions), especially those in underserved communities, such as Compton, which has a poverty rate twice the California average and a murder rate five times the national average.

According to research from the Washington State University Area Health Education Center, children who have an ACE score of 3 are more than twice as likely to be suspended from school, six times more likely to experience behavioral problems, five times more likely to have severe attendance issues. They also have reduced reading ability and lower grade point averages.

“ACEs” comes from the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, a groundbreaking public health study that discovered that childhood trauma leads to the adult onset of chronic diseases, depression and other mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. The 10 ACEs the researchers measured include physical, sexual and verbal abuse, physical and emotional neglect; a family member who is depressed or diagnosed with other mental illness, addicted to alcohol or another substance, in prison, witnessing a mother being abused, losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason.

“Childhood trauma is the number one public health problem in the U.S. today,” said Mark Rosenbaum, directing attorney for Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law project. “Unaddressed trauma is the greatest enemy to the brain. We need to address childhood trauma in our public schools if we are genuinely serious about eliminating the gap between haves and have-nots.”

The lawsuit seeks a remedy based on the adoption of proven models that other school districts have put into practice (see links below to schools that have integrated trauma-informed practices). These models include mental health and counseling services; trauma-informed training for educators and school staff; teaching children coping skills for anxiety and emotions; and implementing positive school discipline and restorative strategies to keep children in a school that is safe and welcoming.

All of the students who are part of the suit talk about how they would like teachers to “hear” them. (With the exception of Kimberly Cervantes, who is 18, the students’ real names are not being published to protect their privacy.)

Said one 17-year-old who was sent to live in a foster home after he called police when his father “went beserk,” “I want to figure out a way for teachers to understand the students. Where is the positive part in their lives? There is none. I would love to see my school as a peaceful place where I could feel safe and calm.”

One student-plaintiff, a former foster youth with a history of being physically and sexually abused, became homeless this year. With nowhere else to turn, he slept on the roof of the high school he attended. At no time did school administrators provide any support or services. Instead, he was suspended. Although some personnel were aware of the student’s circumstances, the student’s attempts to return to school were denied, and he was threatened with law enforcement involvement if he persisted in attempting to return.

Rosenbaum wants the suit to do help create schools that are safe for students. “Our suit seeks to bolster the remarkable resilience of these students,” he said.

And remarkable it can be, if traumatized students don’t have to go to a school that further traumatizes them, and instead provides support. Four years after the principal, all teachers and staff at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, integrated a trauma-informed approach, student suspensions dropped 90% and expulsions were eliminated. The students’ test scores, grades and graduation rates increased, as did the number applying to two- and four-year colleges. The students, whose average adverse childhood experiences (ACE) score is 5.5, call the school their family, because, for most, it’s safer and a more loving place than their own family.

Documentary filmmaker James Redford spent a year at Lincoln High School to follow four students as they interacted with the principal, teachers and staff. The resulting documentary, Paper Tigers, is premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival on May 28.

Many other schools have integrated trauma-informed, resilience-building approaches with results similar to those at Lincoln High School. They include Cherokee Point Elementary in San Diego, six elementary schools in Spokane, WA, four elementary schools in San Francisco, a high school in Blaine, MN, and West Seattle Elementary in Seattle.

The key in all of these schools is, instead of asking a kid “What’s wrong with you?”, teachers ask “What happened to you?” and provide support and guidance to the student and, if necessary and possible, the student’s family.

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Here’s a story about this on LATimes.com.

And here’s another from KPCC in Los Angeles.

Paper Tigers to premiere at Seattle International Film Festival

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Paper Tigers will  premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) at 7 PM Thursday, May 28, 2015, at the SIFF Cinema Uptown in Seattle, WA. SIFF is the largest and most highly attended festival in the U.S.

Paper Tigers follows a year in the life of an alternative high school in Walla Walla, WA, that has radically changed its approach to disciplining its students, and in the process has become a promising model for how to break the cycles of poverty, violence and disease that affect families. A story about the school was published on this site in 2012: Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tries new approach to school discipline; suspensions drop 85%

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An additional screening will take place at 12:30 PM on Saturday, May 30 at the same location. For ticket information and other details: http://www.siff.net/festival-2015/paper-tigers

The documentary was directed by James Redford. Its executive producer is Karen Pritzker. To view a trailer of the movie, go to PaperTigersMovie.com.

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ACEs-informed ‘freckles’ spreading across Midwest

SaintA human services agency

SaintA human services agency ________________________________________

Organizations across the Midwest that are integrating trauma-informed practices based on adverse childhood experiences research are like freckles amassing into a suntan, says Elena Quintana.

“It’s spreading,” says the executive director of the Institute of Public Safety and Social Justice at Adler University in Chicago, who estimates that about 100 organizations have integrated trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on research in adverse childhood experiences. “You want there to be total coverage within practice and policy. We’re not there yet, but those spots are getting bigger.“

Restraints and seclusion

One of those spots is SaintA in West Allis, WI, that provides foster care, education and mental health services for children and families. The organization serves about 5,000 people daily across a wide array of services, the largest of which is child welfare case management in Milwaukee County, where SaintA serves about 1,400 children daily.

Ann Leinfelder Grove, executive vice president and a 25-year veteran of SaintA, says her organization began moving toward trauma-informed care about eight years ago.

Ann Leinfelder Grove, SaintA executive vice president

Ann Leinfelder Grove, SaintA executive vice president

“We were looking at the question of how to reduce the use of physical restraints within one of our programs,” she says. The State of Wisconsin had encouraged a change in the use of physical intervention and seclusion to manage troubled youth, which SaintA does through its residential treatment program, which serves 40 children at any one time, as well as supervised visitation family services programming.

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The truth about trauma and the impact of terror, and how I learned resilience

Mom, Ann, Dad, Leisa, 1972 ______________________

Mom, Ann, Dad, Leisa, 1972
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I was about seven years old when my mom first told me about the abuse she had suffered at the hand of her mom, my grandmother. I remember this vividly because I had just poured a can of grape soda over my three-year-old brother’s head in a “do you dare me, yes I dare you” game I was playing with my five-year-old sister. My brother, of course, started screaming as if he was being murdered, and my gorgeous, stay-at-home mom bolted out the front door of our early 1900s home as if she was going to kill someone.

The look on her face was enough to scare all of us. Even my brother, who seconds earlier was wailing at the top of his lungs, turned his hysterics into mini whimpers. My mom, however, was just getting started.

“Who did this?” she yelled.

My brother pointed at me, my sister pointed at me… and I pointed at my sister.

My mom said, “All of you had better make up your minds about this because the one thing I hate more than anything is being lied to.”

And so, knowing that I was in way over my head, I said to my younger brother, “You were looking the other way, you heard Ann, she was daring me to do it, and when I wouldn’t she did it.” My brother turned his arm and pointed at my sister.

My sister shrieked, “Why are you lying? Why are you blaming me? You always blame me.”

By now, several of our neighbors had stepped onto to their front steps to watch.  The old lady at the house to the right was just shaking her head in disgust. It was the summer of 1976. Most of the fathers in the neighborhood worked in blue-collar jobs. Most of the neighborhood moms were home with their kids, at least in the summers. The city streets had sidewalks, and the houses were separated by narrow driveways. My mom used to tell us not to air our dirty laundry for the neighbors to see, and this was exactly what we were doing.

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Creating a culture of compassion in schools — Cherokee Point Elementary, San Diego, CA

In 2013, I posted a story about Cherokee Point Elementary School in the City Heights district of San Diego, CA. It was transitioning to becoming a trauma-informed school. Here’s a video that was posted this month about the school.

Minnesota high school screens students for ACEs to develop trauma-informed education

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Paladin students on a field trip to Minneapolis to see the play, Romeo and Juliet.

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At many high schools across the U.S, it’s spring break time. Most kids and teachers can’t wait to get away from school with their families for a week.

Not so at Paladin Career & Technical High School in Blaine, MN, outside Minneapolis.

“The week before break the level of anxiety gets pretty extreme around here,” says Leisa Irwin executive director of Paladin. “It’s the same before any holiday break.”

The kids don’t want to leave…for good reason. There’s nothing fun or relaxing about spending a week at home. Most students come from homes and neighborhoods filled with violence, alcohol and drug abuse. They live with families where humiliation, neglect, mental illness and hopelessness are part of everyday life. A stark 34% of Paladin students are homeless; they hang out on dangerous streets for a week in cold weather. The school is their haven.

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A trauma-informed school wasn’t part of my plan, but now it’s my life’s work

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 8.40.07 PMIn the summer of 2011, July 22nd to be exact, I took an interim position at Paladin Career and Technical High School as the executive director, while the school board started a search for a permanent director. At the time, I owned two companies and Paladin was one of my clients. I loved what the school did and helping to bridge the leadership gap during a search process was an easy decision to make. But I also loved working with the other schools, where I served as the chief financial officer through my consulting business. The decision to take on that interim role has irreversibly changed my life. And I can’t imagine doing anything else. I was hired as the executive director, no longer interim, at the end of the school year, and I closed my consulting company.

I came to Paladin with a business focus.  I wanted the school to be the best it could be. I wanted the data to reflect its success and I wanted the story of the school’s hard work to be indisputable. In the world of education, that meant telling the story of test scores, graduation rates, attendance rates, and fiscal strength. It meant telling a story that was in alignment with all the pressure from news media and legislation, a story that focused on core standards and high stakes testing.

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