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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Arresting our way out of drug crisis is yesterday’s theory, says VT Gov. Shumlin; urges public health approach

AshumlinState of the state addresses—like the State of the Union—tend to cover a wide range of topics from the economy to health care to education.  Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin broke the mold when he devoted his entire 2014 State of the State address to the state’s drug addiction crisis.  The rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime spreading across Vermont is “more complicated, controversial, and difficult to talk about” than any other crisis the state confronts, he said.

“We have lost the war on drugs,” he said. ” The notion that we can arrest our way out of this problem is yesterday’s theory.”  Even though Vermont is the second smallest state in the union (pop. 626,600), more than $2 million of heroin and other opiates are being trafficked into the state every week. Shumlin expressed alarm over the increase in the deaths from heroin overdose that doubled in 2013 from the year before and the 770 percent increase in treatment for opiates.

Shumlin told emotional stories of young Vermonters becoming addicted to prescription opiates and heroin — one recovered, one died from an overdose. While stories of young and promising individuals dying from heroin overdoses may grab headlines, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that deaths from prescription opioid pain relievers — such as codeine, methadone, and oxycodone — between 1999-2008 now exceed deaths involving heroin and cocaine combined.

CDC reports that in 2008, 36,450 deaths were attributed to drug overdoses in the U.S.  Opioid pain relievers were involved in 14,800 deaths (73.8%) of the 20,044 prescription overdose deaths.  The drug overdose death rate of 11.9 per 100,000 (Vermont’s rate was 10.9 per 100,000) was roughly three times the rate in 1991. Prescription drugs accounted for most the increase.  An April 12, 2012 statement from the Office of National Drug Control Policy reported that death from unintentional drug overdoses is greater than car accidents, the leading cause of injury in the U.S.

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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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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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The trauma of domestic violence: reality v. the classroom

dv1“I need to use a phone.”

I had just arrived home yesterday and was surprised to find my neighbor — I’ll call her Sarah (not her real name) — standing in my drive. Then I realized it was her car that was parked on the other side of the street. She must have been waiting for me.

“Has something happened?” I asked, but not really needing to, given the pallor of her face and the way she staggered as we walked towards my house.

“I’ve been beaten up and I just need to call the police.” That’s when I noticed the hand she held to her temple was hiding a very nasty lump. “I don’t want to stay,” she added quickly.

At work, I am known as the trauma geek – in fact, just yesterday afternoon I was teaching trauma-informed care to our current class of parent educators who are getting their certification in nonviolent parenting. One of the participants is a domestic violence survivor and gave a description of how trauma affected her ability to think and remember after escaping into a shelter.

“It was like there was rain in my ears for a week. You could speak to me and I would see your mouth moving, but I couldn’t understand what you were saying.” She was far more eloquent than my slides on the neurological effects of trauma. And now here was Sarah sitting on my sofa probably in the same state.

A glass of water! I remembered the grounding techniques to soothe the alarm center (amygdala) of the brain. I filled a glass and then sat down and stroked her hand.

“Would you be willing to tell me who has done this to you?”

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How brains are built: the core story of brain development

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In just four quick and easy minutes, this terrific animated graphic explains how adults and communities help children build healthy brains, and how that process can be derailed by toxic stress.

The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative developed the video, with assistance from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child and the Frameworks Institute.

The only down side is that they didn’t put this on YouTube or Vimeo, which drastically slows down its  movement through cyberspace.

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JFK legacy on mental health to be celebrated in Boston

kennedyFifty years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act, a largely unheralded piece of legislation that embodied a hopeful vision of what life should be like for people with mental illnesses, addiction and intellectual disabilities: living lives of dignity and sharing in the benefits of our society.

The President’s nephew and former Rhode Island congressman, Patrick J. Kennedy, is organizing the Kennedy Forum October 23 and 24 in Boston to commemorate the anniversary and start a new conversation among diverse leaders to assess what has been accomplished and what is now needed to improve care and achieve equality in all aspects of life. The forum is catalyzing a larger, national

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Foster human flourishing, and improved economic production will follow

lifelinesIn a recent New York Times opinion piece, “Lifelines for Poor Children“, James J. Heckman, Nobel Laureate and professor of economics at the University of Chicago, makes a compelling case for quality early childhood programs for disadvantaged children that “more than pay for themselves in better education, health and economic outcomes.” But making these high-yield investments in children from birth to age five will require us, according to Heckman, “to rethink long-held notions of how we develop productive people and promote shared prosperity.”

Heckman points to two long-term research studies that have demonstrated high rates of return on investment: the Ypsilanti, Michigan Perry Preschool project and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, aka “ABC.” Both programs included cognitive stimulation as well as non-cognitive skill development such as training in self-control and social skills, and parenting practices. The Perry Preschool project showed that while the experience did not make lasting changes in children’s IQs as was expected, it did improve their overall, lifetime success in education, earnings and stability overall. The “ABC” project did show lasting effects on IQ as well as on parenting practices and

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The Restorative Justice League of Le Grand High School jumps in to save the day

A teen starts a fistfight with a fellow student. Another brings alcohol to school. Another urinates on a fellow student’s locker, and a fight ensues.

Three years ago at Le Grand High School, in Le Grand, CA, these students would have been immediately expelled or suspended. This year, they weren’t. They didn’t miss any classes. They made amends. They learned from their mistakes.

In 2010-2011, Principal Javier Martinez suspended 49 students and expelled six. Last year, he suspended 15 and expelled only one.

This school year, with the help of the Restorative Justice League, he’s going for double zeros.

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Le Grand High School is tucked on the edge of a town so tiny it has not one traffic light. Orchards and fields

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Children with parents in prison: one ACE* and counting

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If that isn’t startling enough, check out the rest of this Child Trends infographic, which also points out that 330,000 of the 1.6 million people in prison are there for drug offenses. It describes alternatives, which are being tried in some states: restorative justice, substance abuse treatment services, and training and education.

*ACE = adverse childhood experiences. For an explanation and to figure out your own ACE and resilience scores, go to Got Your ACE Score?