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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What happens when the teacher is the bully?

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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.

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In the middle of the night, finding resilience in a storm of ACEs

Astress2I 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.”

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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.”

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San Francisco’s El Dorado Elementary uses trauma-informed & restorative practices; suspensions drop 89%

El Dorado Elementary School Principal Silvia Cordero announces one of the winners of the weekly student-of-the-week award.

El Dorado Elementary School Principal Silvia Cordero announces one of the winners of the weekly student-of-the-week award.

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For one young student – let’s call him Martin — the 2012-2013 school year at El Dorado Elementary in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood of San Francisco was a tough one, recalls Joyce Dorado, director of UCSF HEARTS — Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools.

“He was hurting himself in the classroom, kicking the teacher, just blowing out of class many times a week.” There was good reason. The five-year-old was exposed to chronic violence and suffered traumatic losses. His explosions were normal reactions to events that overwhelmed him.

This year, Martin’s doing better. That’s because he spent months working with a HEARTS therapist, and that therapist worked with his teachers and other school staff to create a more safe and supportive learning environment. Still, on days when he feels extremely anxious, Martin sometimes asks to visit the school’s Wellness Center, a small, bright room stocked with comforting places to sit, headphones to listen to music, and soft and squishy toys.

“If a student starts to lose it, the teacher can give the kid a pass to go to the Wellness Center,” says Dorado. “The kid signs in, circles emotions on a ‘feelings’ chart (to help the person who staffs the center understand how to help the child). The staff member starts a timer. The kid gets five to 10 minutes. The kid can sit on the couch with a blanket, listen to music, squeeze rubber balls to relieve tension and anger, or talk to the staff member. Kids who use the room calm down so that they can go back to class. It’s not a punishment room. It’s not a time-out room. It’s not an in-school suspension room. It’s a room where you feel better going out than when you went in.”

One day this year, as school staff members are meeting in the Wellness Center, Martin bursts in. “I need to borrow something,” he tells them. “Somebody needs my help.”

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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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New federal guidance should help slow the flow in “school-to-prison pipeline”, but much work remains

AzeroAdvocates for fair and effective school discipline practices received a boost from the federal government with new guidance issued by the Departments of Education and Justice on January 8.  The guidance instructs schools on how to administer school discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  In addition to the guidance, the Administration issued a package of resources to assist in the improvement of school climates and discipline, including key principles and action steps based on best practices and emerging research.

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