A Public School That Not Only Keeps Children Safe, But Heals

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.

Early in his tenure at Cherokee Point, Higa realized that hunger might account for some student misconduct. He arranged a free breakfast for every child—in a school where 100 percent of the children qualify for free and reduced-price meals because of their household income. Student behavior quickly improved, staff noticed. He also turned the elementary school into a community school, developing partnerships between the school and local nonprofits, which created an array of new services on campus to benefit not only students and parents, but also the neighborhood. In 2010, for example, a local food bank needed a distribution center, and he offered his school site. “So I have 4,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables come every other week. Parents come and pick up their food, no judgments.”

In 2011, Higa received a call from a “Peace Promotion Momentum Team,” affiliated with The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities (BHC) campaign. The team shared his whole-child philosophy and offered powerful new support to help make his vision a reality. They asked Higa if he was interested in implementing a restorative justice and wellness program on his campus—goals that perfectly fit his own—with grant funding from the BHC campaign. “So I said, ‘Of course,’” Higa said. The $684,000 grant launched the Wellness and Restorative Practice Partnership, run in consultation with several San Diego State University professors. Among the partnership’s aims: increase on-campus and in-home health care services for students and their parents; develop youth leadership to drive change on campus and in the community; create a positive climate that prevents conflicts; and—critically—train campus staff, from teachers to custodians, as well as parents and students, in restorative practices, which entail repairing harm while building relationships.

With the influx of new resources in both funding and personnel, a transformation took hold. Medical professionals now give every student a dental, eye, and physical exam, and free counseling is available for any parent or student who requests it. Along with Higa’s already compassionate approach, the restorative practices training reinforced a culture of respect between students and staff, creating an all-important sense of safety for students. Higa remembers a few years ago overhearing a kitchen staff worker “screaming and yelling at the kids.” He said, “You are not going to speak to kids this way. If you continue to do this, I’m going to have to go to the next step. And I want to help you. Do you have issues at home? Whatever is making you this way, I want to help you.”

The results have been dramatic. A few years after implementing the new approach, suspensions at Cherokee Point fell to zero, and there have been none since then. Given the calm pervading the campus, Higa stopped staffing a campus police officer in 2015. “All he did was stand around,” Higa recalled. The officer once told him, “I have more problems with adults coming in the wrong way in the parking lot than kids.” The school police chief pulled the officer and told Higa to call if they were needed. They have not been called since.

The same trauma-informed approach now practiced at Cherokee Point is being adopted in schools across the US. The state of Washington has implemented a Compassionate Schools Initiative; Massachusetts created a Flexible Framework for Helping Traumatized Students Learn program, which arose from a sustained campaign by the Massachusetts Advocates for Children for trauma-sensitive approaches at schools. Several state departments of education now provide resources to address trauma, including Illinois, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. In Idaho, 75 percent of school districts have sent staff to attend Idaho State University’s mental health training program, which includes trauma education. The Menominee Indian School District in Wisconsin has embraced trauma-informed schools and practices throughout its community. And in Washington, DC, where one in four children lives in poverty—half in some neighborhoods—the Children’s Law Center has successfully advocated for additional trauma training for several hundred educators.

Like Cherokee Point, other trauma-informed schools are seeing dramatic improvements. Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington (which was profiled in the documentary Paper Tigers) saw an 85 percent reduction in suspensions after adopting a trauma-informed approach.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting—and other eruptions of violence that afflict schools and communities—Cherokee Point and other trauma-informed schools offer a powerful model of an effective alternative approach with lasting benefits. A large number of education experts agree that hardening our schools will not end violence on school campuses. Instead, they urge school administrators to adopt a public-health approach, and to treat traumatized or troubled children with compassion and care to foster healing and cultivate healthy school climates—and to welcome community partners in supporting that work.

A 2016 article in The Atlantic, “Fixing Schools Outside of Schools,” describes how more school districts are turning to nonprofits and foundations to form partnerships in order to offer a wider array of student supports, with the growing realization that schools thrive with this teamwork. These partnerships also give school districts latitude to innovate and try new approaches. The article, however, notes how little of educational philanthropic dollars actually trickle down to the K-12 level, with most going to higher education.

The Center for American Progress prepared a report on cultivating these kinds of collaborative efforts, called Achieving Results through Community School Partnerships. Schools that partner with nonprofit organizations outperformed those who don’t in state tests, as well as in graduation and dropout rates, the report stated. As one school superintendent was quoted as saying, “Quite frankly, we can’t resolve (school) issues in isolation. It takes a community effort.”

The report offers ample advice on establishing and maintaining such partnerships, including ensuring that all partners develop a common vision and agreed-upon mechanism for mutual accountability, and that all parties cultivate open, candid dialogue about challenges and solutions.

Noemi Villegas, Ed.D., an instructional support officer with the San Diego Unified School District who is involved in implementing the districtwide trauma-informed training, also said it’s critical for potential partners to understand the structure of a school district and the various populations of students served, and to keep an open mind as to what’s needed. Sometimes, she said, a community organization arrives with offers for services the district already has, but the schools could use support on other fronts.

“So we can bring the experiential knowledge that we have from inside the district,” Villegas said. Partners can then work with them to rethink strategies, and “align and maximize resources,” she added.

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The article is adapted from Twenty Years of Life: Why the Poor Die Earlier and How to Challenge Inequity (Island Press, 2018), by Suzanne Bohan. The author covered health and science for 12 years with the Bay Area News Group, which includes the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and Oakland Tribune. She previously worked for the Sacramento Bee, and her writing has also been published in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers nationwide.