October 23 — 10:28 am, 2014

Traumatized students, traumatized District

Despite fewer resources, the District is training staffers to treat troubled students using newer, gentler methods.

trauma workshop Photo: Harvey Finkle

A teacher at South Philadelphia High School had a strange feeling about a female student who had been absent with increasing frequency last school year.

She told counselor Pierre LaRocco about it, and he was equally uneasy.

“I don’t know why,” he recalled. “But I knew that, for some reason, it was important for me to make a home visit.”

He said he got to the girl’s home around 11 a.m. and found her there with her mother, feeling depressed. So he took her to the Einstein Crisis Response Center at Germantown. According to LaRocco, during her interviews there, she said she had been planning to commit suicide that afternoon at precisely 2:15.

LaRocco related the story to emphasize how important it is for counselors to have close relationships with students. And how difficult this has become in light of cutbacks in the Philadelphia School District.

“It scares me to think what might have happened if I hadn’t gotten there until 2:15,” he said.

Since the 2011-12 academic year, the number of counselors in the system has dwindled from about 400 to the current 222. The year after the incident occurred, he said, his caseload went from between 250 and 300 students to 500, making it harder to know each of them as well. Districtwide, the student-to-counselor ratio now approaches 600 to 1.

The District has also had to make severe cuts in other workers who have traditionally provided the first line of help for students with behavioral health issues, eliminating more than 135 social services jobs, mostly case managers and service coordinators.

The District has made efforts to counteract the loss of personnel. It has stepped up training efforts for teachers and other personnel so that those who remain are better equipped to deal with behavioral health issues.

It has obtained foundation and government grants to make up for some cuts in state funding.

And it has tried to work more closely with city agencies such as the Department of Human Services and Community Behavioral Health, which have not been as severely affected by budget cuts.

Sign of a traumatized organization

When William Hite was still a month away from starting his job as superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, he knew there was at least one key change he wanted to make.

“We can’t arrest our way to higher achievement,” he told a principals’ summit in August 2012. “We can’t arrest or suspend our way to safer schools.”

“These things are the result of climates, environments, and cultures that are established by the adults and between the adults and the young people they serve,” said Hite.

He and the principals spent the three days discussing “trauma-informed” practices, which deal with troubled students by shifting the focus from What’s wrong with you? to What happened to you?

Now, with Hite starting his third year, one of the country’s leading experts on trauma and the schools says that putting these practices into effect is an enormous challenge in a financially stressed urban district like Philadelphia.

Sandra Bloom, an associate professor at Drexel University’s School of Public Health, says that “they’re teaching kids who have been living under really stressful conditions. It affects their learning, their behavior, and their social adaptation.”

Bloom, a past president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, says that schools and other institutions can become traumatized just the way people can, and that constant turmoil and turnover can lead to this.

“Crisis after crisis after crisis is the sign of a traumatized organization.” she says. “The teachers can get change fatigue."

“You need resources to help them do their jobs better. The principals and superintendents need to dedicate time for the teachers to learn and to process what they’re learning. You don’t make system change for free. This is revolutionary knowledge.”

District officials concede that the cutbacks have made it more challenging to spread trauma-informed practices throughout the District.

“Everybody who’s here has to be the best at what they do,” said Naomi Housman, deputy chief for prevention and intervention.

Housman’s staff of behavioral health liaisons has shrunk from 11 to 4 since 2012.  

“They’re trying to deal with 60 schools each,” she said. “One day it could be a shooting at a school, and the next day it could be training.”

Still, the District remains optimistic that it can change its culture despite the reductions in personnel.

“The District is training more people than ever, engaging more people in the recognition of trauma, and doing more work to change the climate and environment of our schools,” said Karyn Lynch, chief of student support services.  

“There are more people informed today than ever, both instructional and non-instructional staff."

The District has assigned Jody Greenblatt, a Stoneleigh Fellow, to coordinate training with partners such as United Way to make it more available to teachers, principals, and counselors. The training is free, although District personnel must take it on their own time.

“Having more staff [would not] negate the need for all staff to think about children, especially traumatized children, in a different way,” Greenblatt said. “Interventions being taught actually work.”

Greenblatt was also instrumental in securing a five-year, $3.5 million School Climate Transformation Grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to overhaul approaches to disciplining students, including school-based behavioral health support to at-risk students.

Foundation support has included a $730,676 grant from the Philadelphia Foundation to the Devereux Center for Effective Schools and the International Institute for Restorative Practices to improve school climate and safety in 20 schools.

Funds low, demand high

While personnel and funds have been reduced, the demands for services haven’t been.

According to the city’s Department of Behavioral Health, which administers school-based behavioral health services through a network of providers, the number of students receiving assessments for possible mental health problems shot up by 40 percent, from 755 to 1,057 between fiscal year 2012 and 2014.

Leslie Becton, director of school-based services for the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center, one of the provider agencies, said that the students’ needs have become greater in recent years. “There are more students with no stable person in their lives,” she said. “There’s more substance abuse and violence.”

Meghan Smith, a counselor at Ludlow, agreed. “The kids grow up in environments where parents are struggling and family units are struggling, ” she said.

Jeanne Lehrer, vice president for behavioral health at the provider agency NorthEast Treatment Centers, put it this way, when she described some of the families her agency works with.

“Some of them, I don’t know how they do it,” she said. “I don’t know how they’re even walking and talking.”


This story is part of a continuing series by the Notebook on student behavioral health, with support from the van Ameringen Foundation. Contact reporter Paul Jablow with your ideas and feedback. He would like to hear about your experiences with the system: where it has succeeded, where it needs improvement, and what you would like to read more about on this topic.



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