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.
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