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Schools Increase Awareness Of Trauma’s Impact On Learning

By Elisa Crouch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)

JENNINGS, Mo. — The list was a familiar one to the counselors looking at the projector screen inside the Jennings high School cafeteria.

Physical abuse. Violence to mother. Abandonment. Divorce.

The school counselors nodded their heads, indicating they have high percentages of children in their schools who’ve experienced a number of these traumatic events. This kind of trauma can profoundly impact nearly every aspect of a child’s development and ability to function, Patsy Carter of the Missouri Department of Mental Health told them. It can hurt a child’s ability to control behavior, and have negative consequences on classroom learning.

It’s an approach to education that the counselors in Jennings worked on for two days last week to better understand.

“This is not a free pass,” Carter said to the counselors and district administrators sitting at three round tables. “But if we want their behavior to change we have to look at it through the lens of trauma and the impact.”

The Jennings School District is on the forefront of work to create trauma-informed schools, places where teachers move away from suspending students for disruptive behavior, and toward looking for the root cause of the actions.

In schools with this mindset, students still face consequences for lashing out at a teacher. But teachers and counselors are trained to determine the trigger points for such action, and how to help a child move himself or herself out of stress mode.

“We really are changing mindsets about how do we work with people — parents, students and teachers,” said Superintendent Tiffany Anderson, who sat through the training sessions. “We really are wrapping services around the whole child and helping them better their lives. So often systems are punitive in how they handle these issues. As educators we really can be proactive and be problem solvers to look at the root.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than half of the U.S. population has experienced at least one traumatic event during childhood. Children in high-poverty communities such as Jennings are at greater risk to experience chronic trauma.

Though many children are able to move past these experiences, others struggle throughout their life with chronic stress. That stress can lead to a long list of health problems and a shorter lifespan.

Eventually, Anderson wants every staff person in the district — from the principals to the janitors — to go through trauma training.

The district has a 30-month grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health through Washington University’s pediatric program to infuse the approach throughout the district.

“It’s more than just training,” said Sarah Garwood, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Washington U.

Trauma-sensitive schools began in Washington state, where a principal in Walla Walla found that addressing trauma is more effective than responding to behavior with punishment alone. Other districts in Missouri, including Kansas City and Independence, are integrating this approach into their schools.

For generations, the standard response to chronic disruptive behavior has been suspension, even for children in kindergarten.

In February, a study by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA found 3.5 million U.S. children lost almost 18 million days of instruction in the 2011-12 school year to suspensions. Keeping students out of school reduces their chances of graduation and success, a phenomenon commonly called the school-to-prison pipeline.

Black elementary school children are more likely to be suspended in Missouri than in any state in the nation, the report found. Missouri also has the greatest disparity between how often black and white students get out-of-school suspension for infractions.

Educators are increasingly questioning whether suspending students improves their behavior. It’s rare that an adult is working with students after they’re sent home — on homework or behavior — often leading to more misbehavior, punishment and, eventually, academic failure.

“It’s a moral imperative that we address the entire child,” Monica Barnes-Boateng, assessment and data coordinator for Jennings, said during a break. “We can’t begin to help them with student learning outcomes until you address their personal needs.”

Photo: Students suffering from trauma — which can include divorce, family squabbles and the effects of poverty — often act out. Some school districts are wondering if punishment for infractions is really the best way to treat misbehaving children. Flickr/Phoney Nickle

District Forbids Teachers From Talking About Ferguson Controversy With Students

By Elisa Crouch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

EDWARDSVILLE, Mo. — In many ways, the recent chaos in Ferguson is perfect fodder for high school discussions about the judicial system, civil disobedience, racial divides, and the role of media.

But in the Edwardsville School District, teachers in the middle and high schools have been told by principals to “change the subject and refocus the students” whenever Ferguson comes up.

The directives have upset some parents who say the events following the police officer shooting of Michael Brown present a wealth of teaching opportunities for their children, many of whom have been watching the situation unfold on television. But school administrators say teachers have been inserting their opinions into the discussions, which is why they’re shutting them down altogether.

“Such comments have caused students and parents to lash out which is not healthy in the District 7 community,” says a memo to staff on Tuesday from Dennis Cramsey, principal at Edwardsville High School.

Across the region, educators are trying to figure out how to best engage students in conversations about Ferguson. The death of Brown, 18, has brought international attention to the region’s racial wounds. The protests — both peaceful and violent — have raised awareness of the lack of diversity in many area police departments, and the disenfranchisement of many area African-Americans.

Several superintendents met Wednesday at EducationPlus, an organization in Creve Coeur representing dozens of area school districts. They discussed trauma counseling and how to address the stress students might bring to class after watching the nighttime clashes on television or witnessing it firsthand. For a couple of minutes, they talked about the kinds of discussions that might play out in classrooms.

“Nobody said the staff should be silent,” said Don Senti, executive director of the organization. Edwardsville may be the only school district in the region that’s done this, he said.

Superintendent Ed Hightower said the situation playing out 25 miles away in Ferguson was a worthwhile topic of discussion — but not if teachers don’t explore it in an objective way. In his 19 years leading the district, never has there been a more divisive issue than Brown’s shooting or the unrest in Ferguson, he said.

“We all have personal opinions about what has gone wrong, what has gone right. And we all have opinions on what should be done,” Hightower said. “We don’t need to voice those opinions or engage those opinions in the classrooms.”

But Abigail Wilson, an Edwardsville senior, said she’d like to talk about Ferguson and its many facets. She talks about it with friends. She’d like to discuss it in sociology.

“It’s modern history,” she said. “It’s huge. It’s so much more interesting than things that happened 200 years ago.”

On Tuesday, there was a discussion about Ferguson in student Nate Hunsell’s health class. The teacher led the class in considering two perspectives — that of the residents and that of the police.

“It wasn’t heated,” Nate, a senior, said. “No one got upset about anything that was said.”

Then he learned from teachers Wednesday that Ferguson was now off limits.

“I thought it was kind of dumb,” Nate said. “It’s something that’s going on. It’s kind of a big deal.”

The district’s directive has generated a flurry of responses from parents on the Edwardsville parents Facebook page — many of whom said teachers should try to keep their opinions out of discussions, but not have to quash them altogether.

“An event of this magnitude shouldn’t be swept under the rug,” one of those parents, Glenn Beckmann, said in an interview. “I agree with everything in that letter except for the provision forbidding them from talking about it. We have hundreds of teachers in the school district and I would bet 98 percent would discuss this with students objectively.”

Hightower said avoiding the topic shouldn’t be misinterpreted as the district trying to ignore current events in its middle and high schools. The actions to stop conversation have more to do with preventing teachers from focusing too heavily on one side of the story.

“We engage,” he said. “We encourage discussion of current events. But you have to be careful injecting personal opinion when you don’t have the facts.”

AFP Photo/Michael B. Thomas

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Violent Protests Overshadow Peaceful Rallies In Wake Of Michael Brown Shooting

By Elisa Crouch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

FERGUSON, Mo. — They sat under a shade tree, putting marker to poster board in the parking lot of a strip mall.

As the Rev. Al Sharpton held the media’s attention in downtown St. Louis Tuesday, an Illinois pastor and a Missouri state senator were across the street from the Ferguson Fire Station organizing their own rally to protest Saturday’s police shooting of Michael Brown.

“The young people aren’t going to listen to Al Sharpton,” said Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a Democrat. “They do not listen to older people. They do not listen to pretentious people.”

So instead, she and the Rev. Derrick Robinson, who pastors a church in East St. Louis, organized a rally hoping to attract anyone — but young people especially — who wanted to join them, as long as it was in peace.

“It’s our generation that’s being affected,” said Jerika Tyler, a 21-year-old student at Harris Stowe State University. “I have a 15-year-old brother. He could have been Michael Brown.”

Small rallies and vigils like this one have popped up daily since Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on a street outside Canfield Apartments.

But they have been overshadowed by what’s taken place after sunset, when crowds have become violent, and police have deployed tear gas, rubber bullets and riot gear. Their prayer vigils, they feel, have gone unnoticed.

The looting, 21-year-old Stefan Hornaday said, “sickens me.” But so does police brutality, he said.

For hours, protesters came and went, standing along the strip of grass separating the parking lot from the curb. Some protesters drove in from St. Louis. Many lived in Ferguson. The conversations they held tapped into the undercurrent of the fear and frustration they’ve felt for years with police in and around this north St. Louis County community.

Tamika McClain, of Breckenridge, said she’s been pulled over numerous times, ticketed for such things as having a nonworking taillight or a broken blinker — allegations she said were false. Anthony Walsh said he isn’t sure how to tell his children how to avoid being arrested. It’s one thing to understand not to break the law, he said. “But how to tell him how to deal with an ignorant cop?”

In many ways, the death of 18-year-old Brown ignited anger that had been building for some time.

Poverty in the area is on the rise, with the highest concentrations in black neighborhoods. In several school districts, the quality of education is on the decline. A disproportionate number of foreclosures has taken its toll, and property values haven’t recovered.

But the anger on Tuesday concerned the police — and skepticism that the investigation into what led to the shooting will bring justice.

“We’re fed up,” McClain said. “We’re tired. We want answers.”

She stood beside a friend who choked back emotion as she thought of her own children. “They walk up and down that street all the time,” Nicole Chissem said. Her family lives near Canfield Avenue, the street on which Brown was shot. “That could have been me on TV saying how I need justice for my child.”

For the next several hours, protesters of various ages and races came and went from the rally, stopping by during lunch breaks. They denounced the looting and the violence.

“If you’re out here fighting for something and the other messes up what you’re fighting for, you don’t get anywhere,” said Dante Taylor, 22, of St. Louis.

He held the marker and white poster board, trying to figure out what his sign should say.

AFP Photo/Michael B. Thomas