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Editorial: Traumatized schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Philadelphia schools are becoming trauma-informed.

In a city with 60,000 children in “deep poverty,” it is essential that those who work in schools understand the painful experiences that students may carry with them. Their families face such overwhelming issues that some of us mainly know about from the news: hunger, homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration, neglect.

Besides those facing poverty, there are children in all neighborhoods who have been scarred by abuse or the loss of loved ones. But in low-income communities, mental health supports are also in short supply. Trauma begets more trauma.

Our school system serves tens of thousands of traumatized kids, which explains a lot about the behaviors that schools confront every day: tantrums, fights in class, students tuning out or dropping out. Schools and teachers can in turn become traumatized.

There has been an important breakthrough: School officials have recognized that zero tolerance discipline policies add more layers of trauma when what’s most needed is conversation and empathy. Systemwide, we are seeing a shift away from purely punitive responses toward more individualized approaches. Grant money is helping schools implement solid programs to improve climate, like Restorative Practices or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

Of course, schools cannot solve the mental health problems of the city. But as communities with many caring adults, they can be safe, supportive environments for children.

Building a compassionate school climate requires staff training – understanding misbehavior as a symptom, knowing how to respond constructively when a student acts out. This has started to happen. The day may require reorganizing to maximize supportive adult-student relationships. At minimum, staff need time to confer about individual students.

Some schools need a sea-change in culture. Students frequently say their schools lack social connection, particularly larger neighborhood high schools. Youth courts or other programs that emphasize peer roles in discipline can give students hope that they can improve their school environment.

We applaud District leaders’ commitment to becoming a trauma-informed school system. But we see major obstacles to that goal. One is the still-pervasive emphasis on standardized tests. You can’t build a positive school culture around the narrow goal of higher scores. Teachers should be rewarded for helping students through emotional crises. Students should be recognized for community-building efforts.

There is also a fundamental resource issue: Most schools simply don’t have enough adults. Cuts to counselors are the tip of the iceberg. Outside partnerships may provide some mental health services, but day-to-day demands on the skeletal school staff have become overwhelming.

Hopefully, the lawsuit challenging inadequate state funding and the election of a pro-education governor have changed the terrain. Elected officials need to hear that schools need a major boost in resources to mitigate the effects of trauma.

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