It would be easy to feel discouraged by this edition of the Notebook.
Stress. Trauma. Abuse. Suicide. Depression. Anxiety. These words are repeated over and over in these pages. So many children and parents in the School District suffer from these conditions that readers might approach these stories with apprehension or give in to the urge to look away.
That would be a mistake. Lots of local efforts are working to reduce these issues in District schools, and that’s where we should focus our attention.
We think of Mister Rogers’ famous advice to children: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
So that’s what we did when we started to put together this edition about “Tackling trauma in the classroom.”
Schools have gotten creative about addressing mental health issues. Many bring in outside groups to provide mindfulness training and to talk with students about why their mental health matters.
The concepts that mental health deserves as much attention as physical health, that people who suffer from mental health issues should not be stigmatized, and that what goes on in children’s home lives significantly affects how well they learn are widely accepted as true. Now, the idea that teachers and school administrators should be “trauma aware” or “trauma informed” is having a moment in education.
According to a 2012-2013 study on urban Adverse Childhood Events conducted by the Philadelphia Health Management Corp., 81 percent of adults in the city said they had experienced at least one trauma indicator while growing up. These indicators include physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, emotional abuse, living with someone who abused substances, living with someone who was imprisoned or sentenced to jail, witnessing violence, and living in foster care.
The Youth Risk Behavior Study, which has been given to 9th- to 12th-graders in odd years since 1991, shows that while certain kinds of risky behavior are decreasing (current alcohol use, binge drinking and marijuana are down), rates of cocaine and heroin use are up.
In addition, reports of attempted teen suicides in Philadelphia are up – from 10 percent to 12 percent in 2015 – and remain higher than national reports. Rates of persistent sadness spiked by 4 percent in 2015 to 34 percent.
In our interviews with Superintendent William Hite and Otis Hackney, the mayor’s chief education officer, both men talked about the different ways the District and the city are trying to respond to the high number of students and families in the District who have been affected by trauma.
One systemic way that the District has changed is by ending its zero-tolerance discipline policy.
Hite says the change in policy and the training of teachers and school police in trauma-aware practices have significantly improved school climate and attendance.
“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,” Hite said.
The challenge is that a discipline policy can be system-wide, but thus far, the trauma-informed training has been voluntary. Hite says that two-thirds of principals have been through the training and 453 staff members, including teachers, have taken one or more classes.All new school police officers must have the training.
Given that there are more than 17,000 school-based employees in Philadelphia, that’s a drop in the bucket.
Hite expressed optimism about the hiring of a new director of trauma-informed school practices, which will allow more classes to be scheduled.
But the District does not make such training mandatory, and teachers must take it on their own time – an increasingly hard ask after five years without a raise or employment contract.
However, when you read some of the stories in this issue – particularly Connie Langland’s piece on nonprofit groups who work in the schools on page 18 – it is hard to imagine a more worthwhile use of teacher and student time and District investment.
As Joseph Pyle, president of the Thomas Scattergood Foundation, notes in our cover story, access to effective mental health treatment is critically important, but so is creating a culture that puts a priority on child well-being.