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Are Our Schools Helping Traumatized Students or Further Traumatizing Them?

“I have experienced a lot, but that doesn’t define all that I am.” -High School Student

Many students across our city and country experience trauma that is pervasive and unrelenting. Often these experiences go unspoken and untreated.

With social services constricted and schools feeling like they are forced to cut counselors, our students are consistently told that they are not cared about. Even before the most recent slashing of school budgets that we experienced in PA, many Philly schools were far below the ratio recommended by experts-which is a paltry 250:1. I have yet to work in a school where that ratio serves students well.

Previously, in my brief stint as a social worker, I saw the impact of trauma in children. As a social worker, I made dozens of home visits and parents would describe conditions that would make grown folks wilt under the pressure. Later, I would learn that researchers called this Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and conducted studies.

Researchers determined that “ACEs are adverse childhood experiences that harm children’s developing brains so profoundly that the effects show up decades later; they cause much of chronic disease, most mental illness, and are at the root of most violence.”

Per researchers, 13% of adults in PA have an ACES score of 4 or higher. In the community we serve, 30-45% of adults reported an ACES score of 4 or higher.

A child can’t check their trauma at the school’s door

As a resident in my school’s catchment area, I am familiar with some of the issues my community struggles with. I know that schools are porous-issues students struggle with don’t get dropped off at the door- and the strengths and challenges of any given community will be present. Trauma doesn’t turn off because the school bell rang. We are convinced that not holding ourselves accountable to supporting students puts them at an even great risk.

People frequently discuss the importance of educating “the whole child.” This holistic approach includes art, music, social emotional learning, computer science, etc. However, the whole child, in our view, extends beyond courses and requires support for the traumatic experiences that many of our students have encountered during their very brief time on earth.

More educators are becoming aware of the effects of PTSD/PTSS on the brains and well-being of children. Our collective action is not keeping pace with the research. While we have a better understanding of the PTSD of soldiers, many child advocates say that there is no “post” -traumatic for our youth. The ‘P’ in “post-traumatic” for our youth often stands for “persistent trauma.” Our students are dealing with a constant barrage of decisions that adults make that perpetuate the trauma: racist redlining, deliberate under-funding of schools, etc.

With persistent trauma, a child has difficulty building trust, maintaining healthy relationships, and it is a hindrance to learning. Schools must make decisions about how to support struggling students. With shrinking services in many cities, families and communities look to schools to provide the space and time to help students cope and thrive beyond the trauma they have experienced. Resources-strapped schools struggle and may inadvertently contribute to students’ struggles.

Attunement and relationships go a long way to support students. And although it is extremely difficult to help a student evolve beyond their trauma when it is the persistent type, strong relationships in school help kids cope and feel whole.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Vicarious trauma is also real. When adults don’t practice self-care, they can make matters worse. Children need stable, level-headed caregivers. Adults also need to help students learn self care as well. The road to liberation our students are on is long and arduous. Self care must be a part of our students’ (and those who serve them) toolkit. Victory without it is elusive. The struggle is real.

Angela Davis said, “Self-care has to be incorporated in all of our efforts. And this is something new,” she said. “This holistic approach to organizing is, I think, what is going to eventually move us along the trajectory that may lead to some victories.”

Audre Lorde reminds us, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

This is exactly what we want our students prepared for. Because, not only do some of them face trauma, they will also need to deal with racism, sexism, and a whole lot of other forms of oppression that can be traumatic. Our students need to be prepared to handle the oppression, while they help dismantle it.

At my previous school, we hired a counselor and a social worker. We chose them in place of more climate (disciplinarian) staff during Philadelphia’s ever-present budget shortage. We chose help, care, and support over law and order. At my current school, we don’t have police officers. US Secretary of Education, Dr. John King, shared that there are currently 1.6 million students with sworn police officers and no counselors. Again, adult decisions can perpetuate the trauma that students experience.

Striving to be a trauma informed school means ongoing professional development and reflection. We make it a whole school project with every adult participating in building knowledge, increasing self-care, and thinking about how to support, rather than simply punishing students when they are struggling. We know our students are bright and capable and we must hold them to the high standards we know they can achieve, yet support them in making decisions that will set them up for success. We also must continue the work of growing, being more reflective, and solutions oriented as we support our students and community.

Schools across the country are working hard to ensure students feel whole, despite what they have been exposed to and/or experience. We also must ensure that schools don’t contribute to our students’ experiences of persistent trauma.

That responsibility is on us.

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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