Giardina: Cleveland schools could benefit from a trauma-aware approach

Maureen Giardina, Feature Writer

School reform: a phrase that has been thrown around in conversations across America for decades, but increasingly so after the addition of our newest Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. DeVos’s extreme stance regarding the public school system in our country has faced much opposition from politicians, educators and constituents alike. She has utilized her influence to promote school choice, which encourages students and their families to attend alternative schools such as charter, magnet or private schools. As one could imagine, an increase of such alternative schools would be detrimental to our already failing public school system—especially those in the heart of our urban cities, like Cleveland, for example.  

In the 2015-2016 school year, the Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD) was home to approximately 38,040 students. According to the district report card, all 38,040 of those students were considered economically disadvantaged (Ohio Department of Education, 2016).  In public school systems that are composed of students living in poverty-ridden areas, such as CMSD, the drop out rates are exponential compared to their suburban and private school neighbors. Similarly, the usage of exclusionary discipline such as detentions, suspensions and expulsions is more frequent.

Are the high rates of exclusionary discipline and the dropout rates related? Well, if you were a student who had been suspended seven times this school year alone, what would stop you from just not showing up all together?

The real question is, why are the students who are brought up in our urban education systems the victims of such exclusionary discipline actions, which can eventually lead to drop out, and play a major role in the school-to-prison pipeline streamlining? We know the statistics; we know the demographics that are at a higher risk, but why is this a common occurrence not only in Cleveland but in urban public schools across the country? And what type of school reform could possibly combat this misfortune to our country’s adolescents? I believe the answer to these questions can be found in a little alternative high school in Walla Walla, Washington.  

The student population at Lincoln High School is made up of those who were not successful in traditional high school because of poor academic performances, behavioral issues and other circumstances that often led students to either dropping out or frequent suspensions. Instead of being another rejecting figure in these students lives, the principal decided to utilize a trauma-informed educational approach for the entire school system. The trauma-informed approach is the essential aspect of Lincoln’s plan, due to the experiences that so many of these children have lived through.

Children and adolescents living in urban environments experience higher rates of exposure to violence and trauma. After experiencing trauma, these students then experience physiological changes to their brains, which can in turn affect their emotional and behavioral responses. These responses can interfere with learning, school engagement and academic success. It is also known that when a child with a complex trauma history is threatened, neurophysiological responses are initiated, which manifests themselves as the “fight, flight or freeze” responses. These students struggle with self-regulation, emotional identification, management and expression, and have increased levels of aggression response. If you take this information and apply it to those students who are frequently being suspended for fighting, talking back, and other inappropriate school behavior, their expressions begin to make a whole lot more sense.  

With just a general knowledge about the effects of trauma exposure, teachers and employees in the Cleveland Municipal School District would be able to approach many of their “problem students” with an entire new perspective. But if the entire school system utilized a trauma-informed approach, the outcome for thousands of students could be significantly improved.

At Lincoln, the entire building uses language from the Adverse Childhood Experience study in their everyday conversations with students. Completed in the late 1990’s, the infamous ACEs study found that as the number of adverse childhood experiences increases, such as abuse, neglect, mental illness in the family, parental separation and a criminal household member, the risk for a numerous amount of other conditions increases as well. These conditions include: alcoholism, depression, fetal death, drug use, heart diseases, smoking, suicide, sexual violence, and an overall lower health related quality of life, to name a few.

School staff at Lincoln has the students count the total number of ACEs they have, and create lessons, discussions, and teaching moments based on their circumstances. This model teaches staff to view their students not as their behaviors, but to view their behaviors as symptoms of what is happening in their lives.  

Would a trauma informed educational approach fix all of the problems in CMSD’s school system? Of course not. But with the knowledge we do have about children and adolescents who have experienced trauma, and the way it impacts their educational experience, it could make an immense difference. Our urban public schools are already in enough trouble with our Secretary of Education’s push towards school choice, so why not take all this talk of school reform and make a change for the better?

We don’t have anything to lose.