Schools and the Perpetuation of Trauma

Logo-primary.jpgBy Nick McDaniels – I live and work in a city that has been plagued by violence of historical proportions.  Recently, my school system has made it an initiative to instruct teachers about the effects of trauma resulting from violence on students.  What the school system wants is for teachers to understand that students who witness acts of violence, have violence perpetrated against them or a family member, may exhibit off-task behaviors in class.  What the school system wants teachers to do is to adjust our interactions with students to accommodate their responses to trauma.

Forgive my tone, but thank you for pointing out the obvious.

In this way, Baltimore has a school system not unlike many urban school systems, where a city’s problems with violent crime places limits on classroom learning.  And, Baltimore’s initiative, as patronizing as it may be for those of us who work the day-to-day in the classroom, is a good one.  Honestly, we as teachers need to be reminded that sometimes, or perhaps even often, classroom misbehaviors may be the manifestations of other experiences.  In fact, it registered for me that the other day when a student called me an @$%*&# because I changed the presentation slide too fast, that anger was probably not really directed toward me.  These reminders help.

But what about our role in the perpetuation of this “trauma?”  Gone are the days when schools can be considered the safe-havens away from neighborhood violence.  There are small fractions of many student bodies that perpetrate acts of violence against other students, repeatedly.  These students, due to a drastic reduction in suspension, expulsion, alternative schools, intense intervention services, are often inserted immediately back into the student body where they can repeat offend.  These offenders are often themselves impacted by trauma, but in school, instead of helping them cope, we allow them to inflict similar trauma on others.

As a student, after you have been robbed in school, beat up in school, threatened in school, only to return the next day to see the same perpetrator sitting again next to you in second period, you will undoubtedly feel the perpetuation of the initial trauma.

By allowing students to engage in physical fights with one another and putting the students immediately back into the same classroom, we are letting students know, as they learned long ago in our communities, that if you experience trauma, no one will help you avoid future iterations of the same trauma.  On the contrary, we are going to force you to endure the memory of violence against you through compulsory education.  And so these emotional impacts (fear, hopelessness, etc…) of trauma manifest themselves as anger, and hence, more violence.

Quite frankly, an explanation of misbehavior as a result of trauma is not enough.  If we refuse to isolate students from future trauma in schools, then we are offering no more than insulting lip service to a dire problem.  The answer, as I have said many times, is not to increase suspension rates for violent in-school offenses, but to increase services for students exhibiting violent behaviors and isolate them from students who are not exhibiting such behaviors during treatment.  If we are not protecting the kids who have yet been untouched by trauma from those who have and have failed to cope in a healthy way, then we are ensuring that every student will eventually be impacted by trauma as a result of violence in schools.

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