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Schools focus on being more ‘trauma aware’

The superintendent and the mayor's top education official talk about addressing mental health needs.

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

Harvey Finkle
Over the last several years, the School District has shifted its disciplinary approach and has trained school personnel to be more “trauma aware.” And aligning the city’s behavioral and mental health services better with schools and student needs is a major goal of the mayor’s community schools initiative. In separate interviews, the Notebook asked Superintendent William Hite and Mayor Kenney’s chief education officer, Otis Hackney, to talk about these initiatives. The interviews have been edited for space and clarity.

Q: Superintendent Hite, your administration has deliberately moved away from a zero tolerance policy on discipline to a trauma-informed approach that helps school personnel better understand and react to student behavior before applying consequences like suspension. Why did you do that?

Hite: You don’t get to better-performing schools by arresting, suspending and expelling students, but instead you have to create environments that are supportive and nurturing for young people. You have to think about the social and emotional aspects of the work, which involves more than just applying consequences for behavior.

Q: Has the shift been successful?

Hite: If you only look at the data, it suggests that schools are changing positively with respect to climate. Fewer children are being arrested, fewer suspended, and fewer expelled. And we are seeing increases in student attendance – at least we did last year. In our School Performance Reports, we found that scores for school climate had increased for 74 percent of our District schools. That is 160 schools.

Q: Can you give us some numbers?

Hite: Since we started our diversion program in the spring of 2014, arrests have gone down by 54 percent, from 1,580 to 725. In 2015-16, we saw an additional 10 percent drop in arrests [from 1580] to 570. And we’ve seen a 16 percent decline in serious incidents, which is really important. When I arrived, several District schools were designated as persistently dangerous by the state, and now there are none.

Q: Can you explain more about what has occurred in schools to lead to these outcomes?

Hite: It’s important for us as a district to think about creating school environments that promote positive learning environments and positive relationships with children and adults in the building. Students need to feel that there are adults that are concerned about their well-being in whom they can confide about problems they are having and issues they are facing. In schools now, we are being asked to educate children who are exposed to very traumatic situations. One thing we recognized is that until you address the cause of that trauma, it’s very hard to think students will be focused on learning to read or learning to do math or all the things we are asking them to do in school. Trauma is demonstrated through behaviors. The child’s behavior may be an indication that something more serious is happening in their lives. So now we’re not just saying, ‘you did something wrong and here’s the consequence.’ That promotes a vicious cycle of treating the child’s symptoms rather than employing a set of strategies that will help the child get through the episode they were experiencing. The key point here is we are trying to focus on reimagining school climate in moving from zero tolerance for bad behavior to one where we are trying to be more supportive and caring for children we serve.

Q: How do you get the adults in the school to change their responses to students’ behavior?

Hite: This work is about adopting new mindsets that help us distinguish between students acting out and behavioral health issues, where students need more supports. We’ve been focused for the last three years on building capacity and competency in addressing trauma throughout the District. We have to equip people with tools to manage student behavior so they feel comfortable in not just saying, ‘This child is acting out and needs to be punished.’ We have to think of tools as more than just a consequence.

Q: So you are training people?

Hite: We now have begun a training program working with the group, the Institute for Family Professionals. They have worked with two-thirds of our principals about trauma and the steps they need to take in their schools to address it. As of January, 453 staff members, including teachers, have taken one or more classes. This is done on a voluntary basis. Teachers are volunteering to do this work and so they have more tools in their toolbox to address these types of issues. For others, the training is required. All new school police officers must have this training. We’ve also done trauma awareness training in 18 schools, and we are in the process of scheduling more of those classes. And we have hired a new person, Aisha Brown-Pygatt, as a director of trauma informed school practices. She brings close to 15 years of experience in clinical and school-based trauma.

Q: How has the community schools initiative helped with this?

Hite: It is helpful in that it is attempting to focus city-based and community-based services to these issues as well. The better we can do that, the closer we can get to creating environments conducive to teaching and learning.

Hackney: We’re trying to work with [the District] to identify models and solutions that work within schools. Our coordinators are not mental health specialists or child behavioral specialists, but we can … help the coordinators and the principals to get the resources that they need in partnership with the District.

Q: All nine pilot community schools that submitted their strategic plans in March included a need for more social and emotional health services or resources to improve school climate. Were you surprised?

Hackney: No. We’re dealing with the realities of Philadelphia. The mayor speaks to it all the time. It’s not surprising if we’re dealing with a poverty rate of one out of every four kids; in some schools, you have a high concentration of children living in poverty. All the ill effects that come with living in poverty, or right above it, or close to it, they manifest themselves in schools. So I’m not surprised that we’re seeing this. So, how do we really grab hold of this as a city and in partnership with the District to really address the needs of children and provide some relief to teachers and principals that have to tackle these issues every day? So if community schools can help identify services, help coordinate services better, and create models that can be replicated across the district, it would be great, on top of what the District is already doing.

Q: Is what you are doing complementary to what the District is doing?

Hackney: We don’t just want to complement what the District is doing. It’s aligning [services] in a very strategic and intentional way in these particular schools to address that. Is it a complement? Yes, but it’s really at a much deeper level than that. That’s what we would like to see and what we would like to do, because we know about the severity of issues across the schools in the District. What we’ll see in the long term is much better systems to help support children and families around all of these issues, especially in partnership with the community schools. It’s something people are going to have to give us time to do so we get it right. We’ll have to do small things until we get systems built. But we’re in conversations with the [city] Department of Behavioral Health, the School District, DHS [Department of Human Services]. We’ve been directed by the mayor to make sure we address these issues. We want to make sure we put something in place that will support the children in the schools.

Contact Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa at; on Twitter @dalemezz.

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