Keeping trauma-informed teachers in Oakland, CA, schools

Dr. Joyce Dorado, director of UCSF’s HEARTS program


by Shane Downing at

Last New Year’s Day, when 13-year-old Lee Weathersby III was shot and died in Oakland, CA, nearly 200 of his middle school peers and teachers received therapy.

In the Oakland Unified School District, Sandra Simmons’ job is to help coordinate that therapy on school campuses. As a behavioral health program manager for the district, Simmons oversees crisis response across the district. She has organized behavioral health training and counseling for students, teachers, staff, and administrators for the past five years.

Today, Simmons is helping to usher in a new approach to behavioral health training at Oakland Unified. The district’s trauma-informed practices initiative is a tiered strategy that aims to create safe and supportive environments for students, teachers and administrators. Adopting such practices will allow the school district to both keep trauma-impacted students in school and provide targeted training and support to keep fatigued teachers in the classroom.

With restorative justice practices and other behavioral approaches already at the majority of schools in the district, Oakland Unified is now in the process of rolling out a new set of trauma-informed practices in six of its most trauma-impacted high schools.

This initiative was made possible through a five-year, $2.9 million Project Prevent Grant from the United States Department of Education, and is focused not only on keeping kids in school, but also on providing targeted support and training for those individuals on the front lines of managing childhood trauma: educators.

Dr. Joyce Dorado, director for the University of California at San Francisco’s Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS) program, is tasked with staff training at the six identified Oakland Unified schools. Dorado also sits on the steering committee for the California Chief Justice’s Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court Initiative.

The Project Prevent Grant, which borrows heavily from the HEARTS program, supports trauma-informed efforts spanning from individual classrooms to the entire school district.

Violence has had a large impact on educators at Oakland Unified. Close to one-fifth of Oakland Unified School District’s more than 2,000 public school teachers leave the district every year. A leading reason for this annual exodus is related to the burnout that teachers experience after working with children impacted by violence in the community.

“Research shows that if there is an opportunity to metabolize the shock, the loss, the grief, the sadness, then students are better able to return to being in class and getting their assignments done,” Simmons said.

However, it’s not always easy to return to the classroom and resume learning. According to city police, 117 children under the age of 18 were shot and killed in Oakland between 2002 and 2015. Those children’s sisters, brothers, cousins and friends make up the 6,661 students in the Oakland Unified School District.

“We speak of war veterans as having post-traumatic stress syndrome,” said Marian Castelluccio, director of mental health services at Catholic Charities of the East Bay. “What we’re finding in the Oakland area is our students have the same symptoms, except there’s nothing ‘post’ about their trauma. Their trauma is continuous.”

Continuous, or chronic, childhood trauma has been identified as a large public health issue across the country. Defined as extended exposure to living with a family member who’s addicted, witnessing  violence in and outside the home, losing a parent through separation or divorce, plus abuse and neglect, chronic trauma can harm children by altering their brain’s development, structure and function. This can lead to a child being hyper-vigilant, or in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze mode even when not in danger.

“Although trauma is experienced by people from all walks of life, when schools serve communities that are disproportionately affected by things like historical and institutionalized racism, community violence and urban poverty, there ends up being a high density of trauma-impacted students in the classrooms,” Dorado said.

According to information compiled by data aggregator Location, Inc., Oakland ranks fifth in the nation for violent crime. While children may be safe in their schools, just outside, gun violence is a real concern around the city.

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The complexities of childhood trauma manifest themselves as perceived negative behaviors in classroom settings: lack of concentration, acts of “defiance”, absence of effort, fits of rage and threats of violence. Once triggered, a student can easily become too much to handle for a teacher.

“Their behaviors are a normal response to stresses they’re not equipped to deal with,” Dorado said.

Teachers need to know how to recognize and manage these behaviors in the classroom so that a single student impacted by trauma doesn’t derail an entire classroom of peers.

“For so long, people have been focused on the individual student,” said Barb McClung, director of behavioral health initiatives at Oakland Unified School District. “They say, ‘I got this kid. He’s unmanageable. Can we get him out of the school and to a specialist because I can’t teach the other 33 kids that are in my class with this level of disruption.’”

In the past, an “unmanageable” student would have been referred to the principal’s office or suspended.

“We had a reliance on exclusion as a way to resolve conflicts,” continued McClung, reflecting on the zero-tolerance policies that were ushered in after the Columbine shootings, and were later perpetuated during the No Child Left Behind years.

According to McClung, when you kick a student out of the classroom because of his behavior, you disengage him and his parents from the school, thus increasing the risk of future incarceration.

For African American boys born in 2001, one in three are at risk of being imprisoned in their lifetime, according to a report from the Children’s Defense Fund. In the Oakland Unified School District, African American males make up only 17 percent of the student body; however, in 2014, they received 42 percent of the suspensions.

Reforming education–which includes addressing this school-to-prison pipeline and underlying racial biases–begins both with the teachers who are issuing student referrals to the principal’s office and with the principals who are issuing suspensions.

Dorado, along with her colleagues at HEARTS, provides professional development trainings for teachers. These workshops introduce comprehensive prevention and intervention tools that teachers can implement in their classrooms to better recognize and manage children who have experienced trauma.

She also trains teachers, staff, principals, and even superintendents, on the underlying neurobiology of trauma. A portion of this training is also dedicated to supporting staff around stress and burnout.

In the Oakland Unified School District, Dorado recognizes that teachers already have a lot on their plates, including social-emotional learning, positive behavioral interventions and support and restorative practices; however, she argues that trauma-informed practices are the common thread among all of these behavioral health initiatives.

“We don’t want to make teachers’ jobs harder. We want to make them easier,” Dorado said. Teachers need to be aware of the stresses and trauma in their own lives so that they, too, can take care of their mental and emotional wellness.

“Teachers need to know some students walk in with chronic trauma. Layers and layers of trauma and grief and loss,” Simmons said. “Their ability to learn is limited by neuroscience.”

But the need for a trauma-informed lens is not limited to students alone. Without appropriate training, teachers, staff and administrators can also suffer the consequences of trauma in the school district.

“We have to be careful when we think about staffing our hard-to-staff schools,” Dorado said. “We burn [teachers] out and we don’t prepare them, and then kids lose their teachers and their administrators over and over again.”

“If what has happened is that you’ve lost people who you love and who you depend on, either to death or to imprisonment or to the ravages of drug addiction, it makes it so that when a teacher quits, the kids lose this relationship,” Dorado said. “It echoes with the multiple losses that many of our young people have had. It’s a terrible process.”

Successful teaching and learning cannot take place in a school unless basic environmental supports are in place to create positive school climates that address the needs of both teachers and students.

“The health of the adults has a huge bearing on the health of the students,” McClung said. “Coming at this from a more trauma-informed lens can help stop some of the churn and help us regain, get people to want to stay.”

Shane Downing is a writer based in San Francisco. Find Shane on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @SCdowning.

This story is part of a series funded by The Stuart Foundation on behalf of the California Chief Justice’s Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court Initiative.


  1. I”m speaking on a panel on trauma-informed education at the Network for Public Education conference in Raleigh, NC, in April. We are looking for a third panelist: we need a teacher who has used trauma-informed approach or method in the classroom. If anyone is interested, please comment here and I will get your message. Thanks!


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