ACEs science can prevent school shootings, but first people have to learn about ACEs science

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David Hogg, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks at a rally calling for more gun control. Photo by Jonathan Drake / Reuters

After 17 people, mostly teens, were shot and killed by another teen last week in Parkland, FL, what seems to be a real movement is growing, propelled by kids devastated by their friends’ deaths and wanting to prevent such a massacre from ever happening again.

Their rallies and marches and lie-downs probably won’t have much effect in the short-term, as some of the Parkland teens learned as they witnessed — and some of them wept during — today’s lightning vote by state lawmakers along party lines to end debate on an assault weapons ban, which killed any further consideration of the bill in the Florida legislature’s current session.

But their persistence can make a difference in the long run, especially if they — and we — widen this to include the dozens of kids shot on the streets of Chicago or Camden or in other communities every week. We can even broaden the approach to include the 200 people, including many children, who died in Syrian air strikes in the last two days, because the roots and solutions are the same.

The kids in Parkland, FL, have the advantages that we want all our children to have: a great education in an affluent community so that they are prepared for and feel confident enough to know how to communicate in social and mainstream media about what they want, and to do it in an informed and cohesive way, with their community at their back. This means support and advice from parents, teachers, mentors and other adults who have created and maintained that environment for them.

Most of the kids living on our nation’s Indian reservations, in poor African-American communities, in poor white communities that don’t have the advantage of good schools, safe neighborhoods, well-paying jobs for their parents, affordable housing, great health care, soccer fields, baseball diamonds, swimming pools and parks….these kids don’t have the support or wherewithal or access to that same megaphone. It’s not that they aren’t capable, or that their parents couldn’t be capable of providing the same support that the kids in Parkland have. But they live in conditions created by us adults and our traditional systems that prevent them from realizing their dreams. Creating those conditions of opportunity for everyone is the responsibility of the adults….all of us adults.

But ACEs science clearly shows even the advantageous environment of Parkland, FL, is not really safe, as the kids found out. Their first response — that this is a gun regulation issue — is right. There’s no reason why any kid in this country needs an assault rifle, bump stocks or anything else.

But that’s just one tiny, tiny, tiny part of the solution. This isn’t only a gun regulation issue. It’s a systems change issue. All of our systems have to change their approach to changing behavior — whether it’s criminal, unhealthy or unwanted behavior — from a blame, shame and punishment approach, to one that is based in understanding, nurturing and healing….in other words, the science of adverse childhood experiences — ACEs. The great news is that many organizations and communities already have, and are achieving results that many people thought were not possible.

Anyone wise to ACEs science (and that includes most of the more than 20,000 people who participate in ACEs Connection, the social network for people who are integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on ACEs science) would read this Washington Post story — Teachers say Florida suspect’s problems started in middle school and the system tried to help him — and know it’s likely that Nikolas Cruz’s problems started at childbirth…and perhaps before…and that the school system, social service system, and mental health system, for all their good intentions, stepped in too late and were not equipped to help him or his family.

According to the article, during one year in middle school, “he racked up numerous infractions — including for a fight during the second week of school and continuing with a pattern of unruly behavior, insults and profanity.” 

“His middle school and high school teachers referred him to individual and family counseling, the records show. They held parent conferences and called social workers. They sent him to in-school suspension, and they sent him off campus. For a time, they sent him to a school for emotionally disturbed youth. Finally, after he was disciplined for an assault at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, they asked for an assessment of the threat he posed to his school, and ultimately he was expelled, about a year before he returned with a gun.”

“Teachers worked “very, very, very hard” to get Cruz to a school center that would help him address his issues, said the sixth-grade teacher, who noted that Cruz’s now-deceased (adoptive) mother also understood his problems and wanted to get him help. But that process took years, the teacher said, and required loads of paperwork to back up Cruz’s needs.”

Here’s the crux of the situation we’re in…where most of our systems are in helping troubled people:

“Instead of slipping through the cracks, it appears Cruz was the target of aggressive work to help put him on the right track. But it also appears he might have hit the limit of what could be done.”

We who know about ACEs science say: No way!

The wrap-around services could/should have started when Cruz was born, if his family was troubled, as it seems they were, from all reports. And because this is a generational issue, a wrap-around service approach that focuses on helping people heal themselves, while making sure they don’t hurt themselves or others, is important to implement in all systems that serve people along their lifespan.

Systems change begins with people who learn about ACEs science. ACEs comes from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), groundbreaking research that looked at how 10 types of childhood trauma affect long-term health. They include: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; living with a family member who’s addicted to alcohol or other substances, or who’s depressed or has other mental illnesses; experiencing parental divorce or separation; having a family member who’s incarcerated, and witnessing a mother being abused.

The ACE Study found that the higher someone’s ACE score – the more types of childhood adversity a person experienced – the higher their risk of chronic disease, mental illness, violence, being a victim of violence and several other consequences. The study found that most people (64%) have at least one ACE; 12% of the population has an ACE score of 4. Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent. (For more information, go to ACEs Science 101. To calculate your ACE and resilience scores, go to: Got Your ACE Score?)

Other ACEs surveys include racism, witnessing violence outside the home, bullying, spanking, losing a parent to deportation, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and involvement with the foster care system. Other types of childhood adversity can also include being homeless, living in a war zone, being an immigrant, moving many times, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing a father or other caregiver or extended family member being abused, involvement with the criminal justice system, and attending a school that enforces a zero-tolerance discipline policy.

The ACE Study is one of five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs damage children’s developing brains; how toxic stress from ACEs severely damages health; how it can change our genes and be passed from one generation to another in historical trauma; and resilience research, which shows the brain is plastic and the body wants to heal.

ACEs affects us all….either personally, in our family members, our friends, or people in our immediate or extended community (i.e., our nation and world). Most of our nation’s burden of chronic disease is ACE-related, as are most of our social and mental health issues. Much of the toxicity in our systems reside in the roots of our history of slavery, racial discrimination and genocide, and we are just beginning to comprehend its reach and effects.

Most people realize the effects of ACEs in their ill health outcomes; in a smaller percentage, the effects emerge as violence, or being a victim of violence. Even the people who live in the affluent community of Parkland, FL, have ACEs — the 17,000 people who participated in the original ACE Study were mostly white, college-educated, and all had jobs and great health care. Thirty-eight states and Washington, DC, have done their own ACE surveys, with similar results to the original ACE Study.

The resilience research part of ACEs science research focuses on what happens when individuals, organizations and systems integrate trauma-informed and resilience-building practices. And when they do, the results are remarkable, astounding, so mind-blowing that they finally provide some hope that we can solve our most intractable problems.

For example:

  • Many schools – including schools in San Francisco, CASpokane, WA, San Diego, CA, and Walla Walla, WA — have integrated trauma-informed practices into classrooms, playgrounds and school policies. These schools have seen 90 percent drops in suspensions after one year; after three years, the schools no longer expel students and some no longer even have the need for in-school suspensions. The grades, test scores and graduation rates increased, and the students most benefitted were those with the highest ACE scores. By the end of 2017, several hundred schools across the U.S. were integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on ACEs science.
  • Safe Babies Courts have integrated ACEs science in resilience-building practices that provide wrap-around services for families; a year after participating in Safe Babies Courts, 99 percent of the children suffer no further abuse.
  • Homeless shelters and the faith-based community are integrating practices based on ACEs research. At the heart of their approach is educating those who are homeless and people in rescue missions about ACEs science. This new understanding of their lives often changes their entire understanding of their behavior, because they realize that they weren’t born bad, that they had no control over what happened to them as children, that they coped appropriately, given what was available to them, and, most important and freeing, that they can change.
  • A rural health clinic in Pueblo, CO, changed its medical practice after it integrated ACEs screening, and saw a 30 percent drop in emergency department visits. A family physician in Tennessee educates his opioid patients about their ACEs, with nearly 100 percent of them returning to health and getting their lives back. The physician also understands that ACEs leads to damage that is chronic and, thus, he treats addictions as he does diabetes, as a chronic disease.
  • Batterers intervention programs that have integrated ACEs science have reduced recidivism rates from what was accepted — 20 to 60 percent — to zero to four percent.
  • Cities and states are integrating ACE-, trauma-informed practices and resilience building practices. By the end of 2017, several hundred communities around the U.S. had launched ACEs initiatives. This report on self-healing communities describes how integrating ACEs science drastically reduced youth suicide, teen pregnancy, juvenile arrests, and high-school drop-out rates — all at the same time — in communities in Washington State that integrated practices based on ACEs science.

People who are incorporating these changes are doing so city by city, county by county, state by state  across the U.S. Also people in interest-based communities, such as education and pediatrics, among many sectors, are integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on ACEs science.

These folks are educating their organizations, their communities, their families, their leaders, their legislators about this new knowledge. Several legislatures and governor’s offices have started incorporating ACEs science into laws and policies.

The important thing to note is that this ACEs science is apolitical and a-cultural. It’s being used in a communities that are Republican, Democrat, Independent, and in diverse communities around the world. It’s a new way of understanding why we humans do what we do, and how our systems can change to actually help people heal themselves, instead of further traumatizing them.

Next week on ACEs Connection, we’re debuting profiles of all 50 states and Washington, DC, that show where remarkable progress is being made in states and communities, and where it needs a boost.

We hope that the information in the profiles will help propel this new understanding of how to actually solve our most intractable problems. Enough organizations and communities have shown that it can be done, so that, although it will take time, there’s no excuse not to do it.

This new understanding actually shows that we don’t have to put up with poverty, or the systems that keep people in poverty, whether it’s systems-induced poverty or poverty of spirit. And for every child, no matter where they live, that’s great news.

9 responses

  1. Excellent article- and I wish ACE trauma would be included more often in our national conversation we have about why/how school shooting continue endlessly.
    Obviously, Cruz had many red flags that were minimized or ignored, while he suffered in childhood and lashed out in teen years. Was it because of his wealth? The Newtown shooter had many similarities with Cruz.
    I believe it’s easier to hide abuse and symptoms if your living in affluence. And, just as the author states, living in an expensive zip code is no guarantee of a safe childhood.
    The 5 mile radius of my upper-middle income childhood neighborhood growing up in the 1970-80s saw 3 juvenile murders: one, a fellow girl-scout (age 9) stabbed to death by 14-year old neighbor, the second was a high school freshman who raped and murdered a fellow student, and then, just down my street, a teen shot and murdered his parents in their sleep.
    I grew up believing the world was a dangerous place.

    Like

  2. Very interested in locating people/organizations in Charleston, WV who are using or interested in ACEs process to lessen the problems here in WV…

    Like

  3. Pingback: ACEs science can prevent school shootings … – Treatment for Opioid Addiction

  4. Thank you Jane Stevens! This is my firm belief as well. As we raise the bar in being trauma informed and treating each other with care and love throughout all government systems the dynamic will begin to change. Our goal is Minnesota being an ACES State in all its entirety.

    Like

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