Can School Heal Children in Pain? Yes, it Can!

ApaperJames 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.

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Can School Heal Children in Pain?

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After learning about the overwhelming effects of childhood trauma, I decided to make a film about a school that’s adopted a “trauma-informed” lens.

Documentaries are no walk in the park. They take a lot of time and money; they have a way of making a mockery out of your narrative plans. They must share the attention of an audience that is increasingly losing more and more of it.

Why bother? It’s a good question. For me, I have one simple bar that all my films must clear: an “oh my God!” moment. If a story does not elicit that reaction from deep within my bones, I don’t do it. I count on that sense of awe, concern, wonder, and alarm to carry me through the long haul of making the film. To do otherwise, well — it just seems stupid.

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Resilience practices overcome students’ ACEs in trauma-informed high school, say the data

The cast and crew of Paper Tigers take a bow after the sold-out premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival.

The cast and crew of Paper Tigers take a bow after a sold-out screening at the Seattle International Film Festival.

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Three years ago, the story about how Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tried a new approach to school discipline and saw suspensions drop 85% struck a nerve. It went viral – twice — with more than 700,000 page views. Paper Tigers, a documentary that filmmaker James Redford did about the school — premiered last Thursday night to a sold-out crowd at the Seattle International Film Festival. Hundreds of communities around the country are clamoring for screenings.

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

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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.

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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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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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