Documentary filmmaker James Redford released the trailer for Paper Tigers, a documentary that follows four teens who attend Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA. Lincoln was the first high school in the country to integrate trauma-informed and resilience-building practices, which resulted in an 85 percent decline in suspensions and a 40% decline in expulsions after the first year. After four years, suspensions had dropped 90 percent, expulsions dropped to zero, and graduation rates increased five-fold.
My second grade teacher considered left-handed kids mentally deficient. She assigned me and two fellow lefties to the Turtle table; everyone else was a Rabbit. Rabbit classmates taunted me and I came to equate left-handedness with stupidity. The teacher called the turtles stupid, admonishing us not to tell, because everyone would know we were stupid. I obeyed, although nightly crying spells told my parents something was wrong.
School Superintendent Newman Smith, a member of my church, had known me all my life. One Sunday he asked my mother “What’s wrong with Annetta?” The next morning, he visited my class, folding his 6’4” frame into the tiny chair beside me. We didn’t talk — I was terrified the teacher would think I broke the silence. He recognized a teacher bully, and immediately moved me to another class, although I wasn’t told why.
Tarpon Springs, Florida, once known as the nation’s sponge-fishing capital, today boasts a new designation: the first city in the country to declare itself a trauma-informed community.
It isn’t that the 24,000 residents of the scenic Gulf Coast town know more than the rest of us about emergency room techniques, spend their time crunching spreadsheets of violence data or watch more episodes of “America’s Most Wanted.”
Being a trauma-informed community means that Tarpon Spring has made a commitment to engage people from all sectors—education, juvenile justice, faith, housing, health care and business—in common goals. The first is to understand how personal adversity affects the community’s well being. The second is to institute resilience-building practices so that people, organizations and systems no longer traumatize already traumatized people and instead contribute to building a healthy community.
Beginnings: a goal to stop violence
The journey officially began in February 2011, when the Tarpon Springs City Council signed a memorandum of understanding to marshal the community to address and prevent childhood and adult trauma.
The results have been profound. Trauma-informed practices have been implemented in small and large ways in a variety of organizations, including an elementary school, an ex-offender re-entry program and the local housing authority. The Pinellas County Department of Health recently decided to incorporate in its Community Health Improvement Plan a goal of providing trauma-informed information in all of its county health facilities.
“Once you bring the community into it, you just don’t know how it’s going to grow,” says local artist Robin Saenger.
But the unofficial journey began in the middle of 2010. Saenger, who was Tarpon Springs’ commissioner and vice-mayor from 2005 to 2011, wanted to figure out a way to reduce the increasing levels of violence in her community. She talked with a friend, Andrea Blanch, a senior consultant at the National Center for Trauma-Informed Care, about her goal.
“She listened,” says Saenger, “and then said: ‘You’re talking about a trauma-informed community.’” Blanch explained how many of the issues facing Tarpon Springs—homelessness, domestic violence and substance abuse—stemmed from childhood adversity. And the Peace4Tarpon Trauma-Informed Community Initiative was born.
“My belief is that trauma is universal,” says Saenger. “Everyone’s experienced trauma in one form or another, and usually does on a regular basis throughout the course of a lifetime,” whether that stems from being in a car accident, witnessing domestic violence or having a loved one with substance abuse problems. And everyone is affected
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick today signed into law provisions to create conditions for “safe and supportive schools” intended to improve education outcomes for children statewide, and giving momentum to the state’s trauma-informed schools movement. They were included in The Reduction of Gun Violence bill (No. 4376). This groundbreaking advance was achieved when advocates seized the opportunity to add behavioral health in the schools to the options under consideration as state officials searched for ways to strengthen one of the nation’s more restrictive gun laws in the aftermath of the tragic shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown, CT.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo saw the connection between reducing gun violence and school achievement and was instrumental in the bill’s passage. When the original sponsor of a Safe and Support Schools Act, Katherine Clark, left the state legislature for the U.S. House of Representatives, some advocates were concerned the void would not be filled. Their fears were assuaged when Rep. Ruth Balser of Newton and Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Boston became lead sponsors.
The schools act supporters were jubilant that the legislation they labored on for years was incorporated in the gun violence bill now signed into law, and expressed deep relief and excitement about the achievement. They also said the hard work of statewide implementation now begins.
The law requires the state education department to develop a framework for safe and supportive schools, first developed by a task force established by the legislature in 2008, that provides a foundation to help schools create a learning environment in which all students can flourish. The framework is based on a public health approach that includes fostering the emotional wellbeing of all students, preventive services and supports, and intensive services for those with significant needs.
Within the framework, schools are encouraged, but not mandated, to develop action plans that will be incorporated into the already required School Improvement Plans. The law also provides a self-assessment tool to help in the creation of the plans.
Under the leadership of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI), a coalition of the Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Harvard Law School, the “Safe and Supportive Schools Coalition” was formed to move the legislation
Roberto is an eight-year-old, former student in my second-grade class. (All names are pseudonyms.) In his short life, he’s experienced at least five major life traumas. One: his mother abandoned him when he was a baby. Two: he was placed in foster care with strangers. Three: he joined his father, but shortly after, Daddy was sent to prison. Four: Roberto moved again to live with Grandpop. Grandpop was ill and on house arrest, unable to leave his home, so Roberto was essentially under “house arrest” too, except for school. Roberto came to school, walked the perimeter of the classroom staring out windows, distracting other children. Sometimes, he just walked out of the classroom. His father was eventually released from prison and came to live with Grandpop, but Grandpop soon evicted Daddy after a fight with him. Five: Grandpop died.
Ashley, a bright and engaging nine-year-old, witnessed her stepfather break her stepbrother’s leg with a baseball bat last night. The police were called, invaded her home about 1 a.m., and took her stepfather away. This morning, she came to school as usual, but in a trance, unable to focus.
Jasmine responds much more aggressively. When she is off her medications, and her traumas are re-triggered, her tiny, wiry 45-pound frame can muscle a chair over her head. She screams and curses in guttural tones while heaving the chair at a classmate. She’s being raised by a hesitant uncle in place of her deceased parents. Jasmine goes home to a darkened row-house, with ”illegal smoke” wafting out the front door that hangs wide open to the street.
Jamar’s been absent from school. After several suicide attempts, he’s at the Crisis Center. Jamar suffered brutal beatings from Mom’s boyfriend, who stuffed a sock in his mouth to muffle his screams. He will come back directly to my classroom from the Crisis Center, without the dedicated adult support he is due.
Ashley, Roberto, Jasmine and Jamar had at least eight other classmates with similar stories in our one classroom at the same time. These four real vignettes are hard to read. They’re tragic. Yet these kids are only a small portion of my class (see “Danny Goes to School). For the last 13 years, one-half to two-thirds of the students in my urban, public school classrooms have experienced similar lives. These children are only four of the thousands across only one city: Philadelphia.
Theirs is not a deficit issue. They’re not “sick” or “bad” children; they’re injured.
I had been asleep for a few hours when I answered the call. At first, I did not realize it was my work cell phone. The caller on the other end was sobbing uncontrollably and in the background I could hear someone yelling, “You’re a f#c%ing hoe. Why do you think you are so much better than us? What makes you think you can live here for free, you f#c%ing b!t@#.”
“Take a deep breath,” I said to the caller. “Tell me where you are.”
“I’m at home. My mom and sister won’t leave me alone. They want me to f#c% men for money, like my sister does. They are mad that I am a going to school and not giving them any money. I just want to graduate. I just want a chance to get out of here. They don’t understand and they won’t leave me alone.”
Sometimes we don’t notice when history is being made. We ride a wave of logical progression and don’t even notice when it peaks – that snapshot moment when we are lifted, arms outstretched, into the waiting air and remain suspended for one glorious second before the wave breaks and pushes powerfully to shore.
What the heck am I talking about? Our Changing the Paradigm conference. Last month, 120 participants, 22 speakers and a slew of volunteers gathered at The California Endowment for our two-day conference on developmental trauma. Everything went off perfectly. The evaluations were glowing (apart from the person who wanted avocado on the lunchtime sandwiches – I guess you can’t please everyone). But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what some of the speakers had to say:
“It was a deep honor and a pleasure to be part of such a wonderful and inspiring exchange of hearts, minds