Jahzaire and Angela Sutton in the lobby at the Science Leadership Academy on interview day. After his interview, Jahzaire came back smiling.
Just over a year ago a personal crisis threatened to throw him off track – a crisis that peaked with him in custody of the Department of Human Services, crying, “My dad don’t like me, the school don’t want me, and now you trying to take me from my mom?”
Every year, thousands of deeply troubled young people attend school in the Philadelphia system, hoping to rise above circumstances like Jahzaire’s. Every year, thousands fail.
So Sutton is visibly relieved when her son strides confidently back into the lobby, stylish in his bow tie and suspenders, a Styrofoam model of a cell tucked under his arm.
“He’s smiling,” Sutton says. “That’s good.”
Toxic, infectious, and ubiquitous
The first lesson of trauma, says Mariana Chilton, is that it’s a social experience, handed from one person to another, replicating like a virus.
“If you’ve been traumatized, you’re very likely to reenact that trauma,” says Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University. “It’s very infectious, and I think it has a lot to do with why Philadelphia continues to recycle its poverty.”
The impact on children’s ability to learn is profound. Neglect and abuse essentially starve young brains, slowing the growth of neural pathways and stunting cognitive and emotional development.
“We have a 3rd grader right now who can’t count to five, and a 4th grader who can’t count beyond 10 – on her fingers,” says Jeneen Whaley, manager of the Center for Parenting and Early Childhood Education at the People’s Emergency Shelter in West Philadelphia. “Not only do you have the acting out, the fighting – you have children whose ability to learn is adversely affected.”
Trauma is not exclusive to the very poor by any means. Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of all kinds can be found in any zip code.
But in low-income communities, where jobs and resources are scarce, multiple forms of dysfunction and deprivation can blend together over generations to create what Chilton calls a “toxic” level of collective trauma.
Of the 60,000 children estimated to live in deep poverty in Philadelphia – defined as about half the official poverty level, about $10,000 a year for a family of three – many will suffer from the kinds of experiences Sutton grew up with. Whaley estimates that “99 percent” of PEC’s residents grew up badly abused.
Mental health surveys suggest that trauma among poor Philadelphians is “off the charts,” Chilton said.
Traumatized children are more likely to drop out, get arrested, make bad decisions about sex and drugs – and repeat bad behaviors, traumatizing still more children.
It’s a vicious cycle, Whaley said, that can suck in entire families and communities.
For many children, the first trauma is hunger, which leaves them lethargic and withdrawn, slowing their neural and cognitive development.
Neglect can do similar damage. Physical and sexual abuse intensify the effect, teaching children coping mechanisms like disassociation (“tuning out”) or hypervigilance – mechanisms that may be useful in traumatic, dangerous situations, but don’t work well in school.
The result is a very large problem for the District. Thousands of such children attend Philadelphia schools at any given moment, where they’re likely to fall afoul of the system by acting out what they experienced, or tuning out and falling behind.
Even the brightest among them can struggle to beat the odds.
“There was a young man here, and he had a phenomenal gift for writing,” Whaley recalled. “The stuff he was turning out at 12 and 13 could sell books.”
The boy – “call him Bruce,” she says – had been a chronic truant and was far behind in his schoolwork. But he made good progress in PEC’s afterschool program. On the brink of high school, he showed promise.
But he also had a mother who, instead of supporting her son’s writing and schoolwork, “belittled him.”
It was something Whaley has seen countless times – trauma replicating itself. “Because of her mental health [issues], her own substance abuse, because of her own trauma, she wasn’t able to nurture that in him,” she said.
The family soon left. Five years later, Whaley was working as a Philadelphia police officer (she’s since returned to PEC) when she spotted Bruce with some shady company.
“So I roll down the window and I say, ‘Bruce, come here,’” she recalled. “He says, ‘Eff the police!’”
But then he recognized her: “Oh my God, Miss Jeneen, I’m so sorry.” Yes, he was dealing drugs. No, he wasn’t in school. Yes, he’d go back, he promised - as soon as he “beat this one case.”
And please, he said, “Come by and see my mom sometime. She’s doin’ good.”
Three months later, Whaley got a call: a “hospital case” in Cobbs Creek Park. “It was him,” she said. “They shot him. The people for whom he worked took him into the park and killed him.”
Rejection, tailspin, and crisis