A diverse group of school staff, mental health professionals, justice advocates, and city employees recently crowded the Moot Court Room at the University of the District of Columbia David E. Clark Law School to begin dismantling the school to prison pipeline.
The event included justice-involved youth and recently incarcerated people who described their struggles to overcome adversity; they spoke from the heart in unsparing detail. The audience and the other presenters—including David Grosso, at-large DC City Council member and the chair of the Education Committee—were riveted by the stories and the poetry, and lingered in animated conversation long after the program ended. The Trauma-Informed DC Initiative and ACEs Connection Network organized the event, which took place last month.
Grosso described how the city council took a first, small step by passing a ban on pre-K suspensions and expulsions of three- and four-year olds, overcoming pushback from those who believed a ban, even for children this young, would undermine discipline and learning. The legislation also requires every local education agency to submit information—organized by campus, grade, sex, and race—to the Office of State Superintendent of Education on suspensions and expulsions. The first report is due in October.
Grosso said people must do the “opposite of pushing children away.” He is currently talking to experts and citizens about what needs to be done to improve school climate and to create an atmosphere where every child can learn. After this fact-finding stage that included a June 23 roundtable hearing on trauma-informed schools, Grosso intends to write legislation to “smartly” invest in mental health and trauma programs that work. He urged the audience to keep the conversation going about trauma-informed practices, to bring examples of best practices to the fore, and to advocate with members of the city council and other elected officials, including the mayor.
In addition to trauma training for everyone who is in contact with students—teachers, cafeteria workers, security personnel—Grosso urged everyone in the community and society at large to engage respectfully with others, eliminate bias, and lead by example. He called on the audience to elevate the conversation and to engage on the issue with government. He urged everyone in the room to visit schools to learn what is going on and to demonstrate their commitment to the children of Washington, DC.
The program’s moderator, Vanessa Johnson, Ribbon Consulting Group, described an NPR story about the importance of a class action lawsuit against the Compton, CA, school district for not providing accommodations for traumatized students under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The suit could have implications nationwide and for the District and could accelerate the trauma-informed school movement.
Panelist Rev. Dwight Davis provided the perspective of a former schoolteacher and current school administrator. As assistant principal at Wheatley Education Campus in DC, he is involved in a process to change the school’s culture in partnership with Turnaround for Children. He spoke about the need to make the District of Columbia a trauma-informed city and laid out three major action steps:
1) “to know trauma when we see it,” and to understand the neurobiology of toxic stress;
2) to plan for trauma by structuring the classroom to provide the antidote to trauma—trust (i.e., teachers cultivate trust and camaraderie in the classroom);
3) to address trauma using effective strategies such as teachers making home visits to get to know parents and their life circumstances; to eliminate pre-conceived ideas; to build a school that is seen as resource for parent; and to provide mental health services for students and parents.
Davis was enthusiastic about the use of bibliotherapy as a way for students to talk about their own experiences of trauma, noting how the character Maleeka in The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake helped some of his female students open up.
Mark Grimes, a Free Minds Poet Ambassador, who grew up in a tough part of Southeast DC, told a story of the cycle of suspensions (first time in the 6thgrade), elevating to expulsions, and leading to being charged as an adult at 16 years old and being incarcerated for five-and-a-half years. During a time when he wasn’t sure he was ready to change his life, he was contacted repeatedly and in multiple prison locations by the organization “Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop,” created to help returning citizens through the use of poetry and storytelling. Grimes finally did open up to trying out the approach after his release, and now he tells his story to middle- and high-school students and adults, because “kids need to hear it from someone who has been there.”
Later in the program, Tara Libert, a co-founder of Free Minds, talked about the power of creative expression to help individuals realize their potential for a different life outside prison.
When Dr. Keyona Thomas-Kelly became the health services program director at New Beginnings Youth Development Center in DC about a year ago, she immediately asked “why aren’t we addressing trauma?” She knew too well how the high levels of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, which are almost never acknowledged, were root causes of the young people’s involvement in the justice system. The therapeutic juvenile detention center provides services to youth who have experienced significant and multiple traumas. All youth are referred by the judicial system, and some have multiple stays because they can find no other safe place to stay. To better equip staff to serve the clients, the center is training its staff in trauma-informed care by employing the services of the National Center for Trauma-Informed Care, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
A “natural born advocate” is how Tammy Seltzer, director of University Legal Services’ DC Jail & Prison Project, introduced a fellow team member Taylar Nuevelle, who told her story of childhood abuse and the trauma she experienced while incarcerated. After experiencing abuse in prison, she received psychological counseling and other services, especially as she prepared to leave prison. A writing program, hearing the firsthand story of another woman’s successful reentry, and learning about resources at a reentry fair helped her make a successful transition to a life outside prison. She felt quiet support for her advocacy for fellow women prisoners, but also had confidences broken and was moved to a higher security prison to protect her from hostile prison staff when protective personnel left the facility. She spent time in one prison that participated in Resolve, a program that was described as trauma-informed, but was based on the erroneous premise that prison was not traumatic.
Seltzer emphasized the importance of dealing with trauma since it is the root cause of many incarcerations. She announced a new step-down program, starting October 1, in the DC Jail to provide individuals with mental illnesses with individual and group therapy, yoga and art—activities that help people who are leaving incarceration, just as they help the general population. She also described trauma-informed training through the National Center for Trauma-Informed Care in halfway houses in the District. Seltzer urged everyone to communicate their support for these types of programs to the city council members.
Hanna Teklu went to prison at 18, had a child while incarcerated, and reentered the community at age 27. She acknowledged the mistakes she made that led to prison and described the impact it has had on her child who has suffered because she was not there to raise him. She said that the other panelists each told a part of her story. As a person of African descent, and first generation American, she said there were cultural beliefs that led to harsh discipline. She suffered abuse as a child that was unaddressed and hidden from view. She described being locked up as child because she was running away and concluded that “once you are in the system, you stay in the system.” She gave her mentors, Michelle Jackson and Leah Harris (both members of the DC Trauma-Informed Initiative steering committee), much of the credit for her success in keeping two jobs, working to have a relationship with her son and being able to speak out for herself and others.
William Boykin, another poet ambassador, spoke of losing his mother at an early age and being cared for by a grandmother who provided little structure. When he was suspended from school, he joined other boys and girls in an empty house for “day parties.” He was 17 when he met Tara Libert as he went to “adult lock.” Skeptical at first about her motivations, he came to believe that her love and concern were genuine, and with this support and the help of Free Minds he was able to get his GED and work in construction. Juan Peterson went to prison at 16 and was incarcerated for seven years. He wrote poems to help deal with all the rage, anger and pain he experienced. He read his poem, Ghost Dad, about the pain of having an absent father.
Libert described how Free Minds offers clients books to read with characters that provide ways to talk about trauma in a safe way. In addition to providing job readiness instruction, the organization’s most important program — On the Same Page — focuses on violence prevention. It provides credible messengers who have experienced adversity and incarceration, who know what can happen in a person’s life that leads to prison.
In response to a question about the impact of poverty on trauma and how to identify children with the greatest need, Nuevelle cautioned against assuming that the children who excel academically are not experiencing trauma and that “no kid is a throwaway kid.” She added that as her family got poorer, the abuse increased.
During the discussion after the program, one attendee noted that children travel throughout the region and move in and out local communities, and asked about collaboration among the local jurisdictions of DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Grosso agreed that collaboration is vital and more needs to be done.
To start, however, “it would be a huge victory for all schools—public and charter—to be trauma-informed,” he said. He recently had a meeting with Chief of Police Cathy Lanier about improving the safety of children’s walks home from school and to include true safe places for kids to be after school. Concerns were expressed about the need for inter-agency and regional collaboration and team approaches to helping children and families who are dealing with trauma.
The session was ended Grimes reading “Drum”, a poem written by a person who is still incarcerated. It described how the person was labeled as “dumb” and how he refused the label.