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School Safety in Traumatic Times

James Paterson

When tragic events occur, trauma awareness is often central in two key ways.

Developing a trauma-informed school safety plan is certainly a worthy goal, but some advocates worry it too often just gets attention when tragedies happen, or when busy educators map out an initiative in August, only to sometimes lose enthusiasm for it by March and forget it by the end of the year. There is growing evidence, however, that a focus on student trauma by all staff members improves school safety culture and even academic success – and can play a role in two important ways in the midst of tragedies like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Setting aside any criticism of social service, school or law enforcement officials without knowing fully what transpired with Nickolas Cruz, the suspected shooter in Parkland, it seems clear he had suffered trauma, having been expelled and most recently having lost his mother, his only caregiver. Research shows incidents of such violence usually reveal trauma in the subject’s past, and certainly trauma awareness might have been important in his case.

And now, just as certainly, an understanding of trauma can be important for the students at the school, and even those at other schools who feel scared and threatened following such a widely publicized event.

“I think it is very fair to say – without specific reference to a particular situation – that a trauma-informed (TI) approach is important in a crisis like this, which affects individuals and a whole community,” says Sandra Chafouleas, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut and an expert on the topic. “It has become even more apparent that safe and supportive school environments are critical to our society.”

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Chafouleas has just published a new paper focusing on students who are “exhibiting negative symptoms” from exposure to trauma, highlighting certain procedures that are effective, especially when implemented schoolwide.

The federal Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, which has a variety of resources and strategies, explains the need for a trauma-informed programs, noting that an effective one is valuable in ways that would be important in tragedies like Parkland’s. It says such a program can:

  • Prevent adverse events and experiences from occurring.
  • Build self-regulation capacity in individuals.
  • Assist individuals exhibiting adverse effects and help them return to prior functioning.
  • Develop structures so that school personnel learn and use strategies that identify, accommodate, assist, and report students who have had traumatic experiences.

Spotting the School Safety Problem; Protecting Rights

The definition of trauma varies and its causes can range from a natural disaster or a terrible incident like the one in Parkland a to severe bullying or the loss of a loved one. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) reports that about 25 percent of children in any school will have experienced at least one traumatic event by the age of 16.

The federal Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative says trauma often limits an individual’s ability to cope, and ignites “Fight, flight, or freeze” impulses, and produces a sense of fear, vulnerability, and helplessness, and can cause people to “Act antisocially or irrationally.”

The Georgetown University Center of Early Mental Health Consultation also has a produced a detailed list of signs that a student may have undergone a traumatic event, including anxiety and fearfulness, clinginess, aggressive or sexualized behavior, self-harming, social isolation, low self-esteem, and poor impulse control. It recommends that schools be aware of students with signs of trauma and get them support.

However, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, which often supports students with disabilities, is concerned about a negative response to students with emotional problems following an incident like the one in Lakeland. That group worries about schools or society implementing fear-based procedures and about personal responses that “Further marginalize and push out the students who most need services and supports.”

“It is critical that we not use this tragedy as a reason to stigmatize children and adults with disabilities or mental illness, but rather we need to identify gaps and push for more resources for our educational system to provide appropriate services to children with disabilities to get the most appropriate outcomes,” says COPAA board member Michael Gilberg.

Some Specific Tips for Educators

A toolkit from the NTCSN can help a school respond to evidence of trauma in an individual or a traumatic event affecting a group of students.

Schools serve as a critical system of support for children who have experienced trauma,” the organization reports, and can “Help reduce the impact of trauma on children by recognizing trauma responses, accommodating and responding to traumatized students within the classroom setting, and referring children to outside professionals when necessary.”

Here are its 12 recommendations:

  1. Maintain usual routines. A return to “Normalcy” will communicate the message that the child is safe and life will go on.
  2. Give children choices. Often traumatic events involve loss of control and/or chaos, so you can help children feel safe by providing them with some choices or control when appropriate.
  3. Increase the level of support and encouragement given to the traumatized child. Designate an adult who can provide additional support if needed.
  4. Set clear, firm limits for inappropriate behavior and develop logical -- rather than punitive -- consequences.
  5. Recognize that behavioral problems may be transient and related to trauma. Remember that even the most disruptive behaviors can be driven by trauma-related anxiety.
  6. Provide a safe place for the child to talk about what happened. Set aside a designated time and place for sharing to help the child know it is OK to talk about what happened.
  7. Give simple and realistic answers to the child’s questions about traumatic events. Clarify distortions and misconceptions. If it isn’t an appropriate time, be sure to give the child a time and place to talk and ask questions.
  8. Be sensitive to the cues in the environment that may cause a reaction in the traumatized child. For example, victims of natural storm-related disasters might react very badly to threatening weather or storm warnings. Children may increase problem behaviors near an anniversary of a traumatic event.
  9. Anticipate difficult times and provide additional support. Many kinds of situations may be reminders. If you are able to identify reminders, you can help by preparing the child for the situation. For instance, for the child who doesn’t like being alone, provide a partner to accompany him or her to the restroom. Warn children if you will be doing something out of the ordinary, such as turning off the lights or making a sudden loud noise.
  10. Be aware of other children’s reactions to the traumatized child and to the information they share. Protect the traumatized child from peers’ curiosity and protect classmates from the details of a child’s trauma.
  11. Understand that children cope by re-enacting trauma through play or through their interactions with others. Resist their efforts to draw you into a negative repetition of the trauma. For instance, some children will provoke teachers in order to replay abusive situations at home.
  12. Although not all children have religious beliefs, be attentive if the child experiences severe feelings of anger, guilt, shame, or punishment attributed to a higher power. Do not engage in theological discussion. Rather, refer the child to appropriate support.

A School-Wide System

“The most important message is that attention to trauma is an important lens for creating a safe and supportive environment in schools, families, and communities,” Chafouleas says, noting that such efforts need to involve the entire school in a structured, sustained way.

She wrote the introduction to an issue of the journal School Mental Health that provides extensive research about trauma in schools and concludes with an article about the effectiveness of trauma-informed practices.

She notes that school counselors with caseloads of from 300-1000 students often don’t have time to adequately identify students who may need support, which means all staff should be aware of issues and willing to report them through an accessible structure they understand. Some experts say schools might inform the staff about social work practices and others have developed models for schools that include community resources.

Schools that have implemented trauma-informed policies find they get positive results. There are examples in San Francisco, SeattleNew Orleans, New York and, perhaps most famously, in Wala Wala,Wash., where successful efforts have been reviewed and supported.

There is extensive research on trauma-informed schools and ideas for staff development, much of which can be found with organizations such as NCTSN with its specific resources for educators, along with Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative and the federal government’s center for trauma-informed care.