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'Teaching Hope': How California Schools Can Improve Ways To Address Student Trauma

Sammy Caiola / Capital Public Radio

The Locke Wellness Center provides trauma informed care to students and community members.

Sammy Caiola / Capital Public Radio

Dealing with students’ childhood trauma may improve classroom behavior and attendance rates — at least that’s the idea at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s wellness centers.

They are located in or near schools, and are designed to serve kids impacted by issues such as deportation threats, domestic abuse, housing instability and other trauma. The district is working with local nonprofits to expand the program. 

Suzanne Markey is a social worker with the district. She said schools often jump to discipline instead of counseling students through issues.

“They do feel, ‘This kid is a problem — he has behaviors — but they’re not really looking at what’s underneath,” she said. 

She added that, “when you peel back the onion what you get is the trauma. If you can deal with that, you’ll see some changes.”

Fighting, lack of focus, classroom tantrums and other disruptive behaviors can often be tied to violence or neglect in the home. When the body is in a constant state of “fight or flight,” youth can’t appropriately process their surroundings or communicate their feelings. 

Pia Escudero, director of mental health for the district, said aggressive students shouldn’t be suspended.  Instead, they should be taken out of class and placed in therapy, where they can learn to overcome trust issues and practice calming themselves down. 

“It doesn’t mean you’re doomed for failure,” she said. “ It just means you need an opportunity to develop these protective behaviors … teaching hope is really important. “

There are roughly 260 school-based health clinics in California. About two-thirds offer mental health services. Advocacy groups across the state are pushing for legislation that would increase trauma training for teachers. 

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