A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. This Article Was Originally Published August 3, 2018 in Nonprofit Quarterly.
After the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida earlier this year, schools are at the epicenter of national debates on gun violence and mental health. How can teachers and administrators deal with troubled students? And how can they make schools safer for all?
It’s not the first time that schools have been asked to address social problems that originate far outside their hallways. In a nation where more than 40 percent of kids are from low-income families, school teachers and staff regularly cope with problems far larger than algebra equations. Too often, their students are hungry, in need of medical care, traumatized by domestic violence, fearful of gangs, and living with perilous housing security or homelessness. Distressed kids act out their troubles in school, and overworked teachers often double as social workers.
Now, post-Parkland, some have called on us to “harden” our schools. President Trump and others have advocated arming teachers and recruiting former police and military personnel for school duty. The National Rifle Association is promoting its plan to re-envision schools as windowless bunkers surrounded by impenetrable fencing.
But it is not necessary to model our schools after prisons. There are ways to create safe, nurturing schools where kids can learn, even in the face of extreme poverty and social challenges. Just ask Godwin Higa, the former principal of Cherokee Point Elementary School in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego.
Under Higa’s leadership, in 2015 Cherokee Point officially became a “trauma-informed school”—a model that proved so successful, the San Diego school board expanded it districtwide. The elementary school is now a place where everyone from the principal to the school custodian seeks to understand and heal the difficult experiences that cause kids to act out. It’s an approach that calls for revised disciplinary practices, social-emotional instruction, school-wide training about trauma, strong parental engagement, and intensive individual support where needed, as well as partnerships with community organizations to support these efforts.
Those partnerships, in fact, were crucial to the endeavor’s extraordinary outcome, which wouldn’t have been possible without support from local nonprofits. The success in San Diego in codifying a culture of care on K-12 campuses affirms the growing call in the civic sector for nonprofits to explore more partnerships with school districts to leverage resources and launch programs with staying power.
Trauma-informed schools were inspired by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine’s groundbreaking 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which found devastating long-term effects from traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect, and close encounters with substance abuse and domestic violence. The ACE Study and subsequent research found that the toxic stress of childhood trauma can actually damage the structure and function of a child’s brain. In this way, trauma can contribute to a range of problems, from poor school performance to violence, risky behavior, and early death.
Such trauma is distressingly common. The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence reports that nearly 60 percent of American schoolchildren have been exposed to violence in the past year, with more than one in ten reporting five or more exposures.
Many of the nearly 600 students at Cherokee Point have experienced trauma in the form of strife at home, fear of their parents being deported, and neighborhood violence and crime. But this K-5 school is an oasis of calm—and not because the perpetrators of misbehavior have been banished.
When a student at Cherokee Point acts out, punishment is not the first response. An administrator or teacher will likely ask, “What happened to you?”—not “What’s wrong with you?” As Higa explains, “When you ask, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ it’s totally negative right away, versus ‘What’s happening to you, you don’t seem right.’ As soon as we say that, the kids look at you like ‘How did you know that I’m feeling down today?’” When they’re done talking, usually the child feels better and returns to class, the disruptive behavior occurs less often and generally fades away after a few more talks, and a trusting bond is formed, he said.
Higa, who has a kindly smile, warm eyes, and close-cut black hair turning gray, said his own difficult childhood animated his compassion for children dealing with adversity. Even though he was just two years old, he still distinctly remembers a dish thrown against a wall in anger the same year his parents divorced. He grew up in Hawaii, on his grandfather’s hog farm on Oahu, and money was always scarce. His father left his life after the divorce, and his mother died when he was sixteen.
Those early experiences informed Higa’s approach as an educator. Even before he heard about trauma-informed schools, Higa made a commitment to educating the “whole child”—understanding students’ social and emotional worlds in addition to their academic needs, and substituting empathy for harsh discipline.
When Higa joined Cherokee Point as principal in 2008, stacks of discipline referrals from teachers and other staff awaited him. Under the traditional system, those often led to detention, suspension, or even expulsion. That first year, he suspended seven students, not too high a number, but more than he was comfortable with. So, over the objections of some teachers, Higa took a new approach to discipline. Rather than being sent home, a student who acted out might be asked to sit out recess and contemplate misbehavior. Higa also instituted a restorative justice approach, in which any child causing harm to another acknowledges it and makes amends.
For example, a teacher called Higa to a classroom after a girl began throwing chairs. He surveyed the chaos and then assured the girl that although the classroom was a mess, it could be cleaned up. What was important, he told her, was that he wanted to know what was going on with her. He left the classroom with the agitated student and took a walk with her around the campus while she described what was distressing her. Higa said he told her he understood that people have bad days and asked her to think about it before she did something like that again and contact him if she felt she might. He explained, “If you feel you’re going to get angry, just tell the teacher, ‘Can I go see Mr. Higa?’ And so we worked out a plan. Within a week, she said, ‘You know, I’m not going to do that anymore.’” And she didn’t, Higa said.