A Trauma-informed School Wasn’t Part of My Plan, But Now It’s My Life’s Work

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Leisa Irwin

School-Based Health Alliance

Leisa Irwin

From ACEs Too High News:

In the summer of 2011, July 22 to be exact, I took an interim position at Paladin Career and Technical High School as the executive director while the school board started a search for a permanent director. At the time, I owned two companies and Paladin was one of my clients.

I loved what the school did and helping to bridge the leadership gap during a search process was an easy decision to make. But I also loved working with the other schools, where I served as the chief financial officer through my consulting business. The decision to take on that interim role has irreversibly changed my life. And I can’t imagine doing anything else. I was hired as the executive director, no longer interim, at the end of the school year, and I closed my consulting company.

I came to Paladin with a business focus. I wanted the school to be the best it could be. I wanted the data to reflect its success and I wanted the story of the school’s hard work to be indisputable.

In the world of education, that meant telling the story of test scores, graduation rates, attendance rates and fiscal strength. It meant telling a story that was in alignment with all the pressure from news media and legislation, a story that focused on core standards and high-stakes testing.

In hindsight, I simply did not know what I did not know. It only took a matter of a few school days for me to figure out that I had to dramatically change my thinking. I was familiar with the school’s data. I knew that most of the students were living in poverty, that most had been expelled or had dropped out of other schools in the area. But what I didn’t know, and could not even begin to comprehend at that time, were the reasons behind the students’ issues.

Early in the first quarter of school that year, we planned an all-school field trip to a college fair at the Minneapolis Convention Center. A few staff had asked what we should do about the students who were known to have behavior challenges. I said that all students and staff were attending and that we would make it work.

When the day arrived, and the buses were lined up in front of the school, one student, I’ll call her Emily, was having a moment of anger — a loud and disruptive outburst — about having to get onto a specific bus. This was, of course, what some of the staff were referring to: If a student could behave like this about simply having to ride a specific bus, what was going to set her off once we were at the college fair?

In a moment that has forever changed my view on how we work with students, I told the student to go back into the building; she would not be attending the college fair. Her response was explicit, and loud, and was something to the extent of, “You effing fat bi7@h, you are not going to tell me what to do, who do you think you are?” And yes, that was yelled at about 100 decibels (I might be exaggerating slightly, but not by much …).

Quite honestly, I was taken aback. Who did this girl think she was talking to? Who talks like that? Didn’t she realize this was a school, and that this was a school trip? What could possibly make a decision about which bus to ride this big of a deal?

Some other staff intervened and talked the young woman into going to my office. I was truly baffled by her behavior and her choice of words, and for that, I am very thankful. It caused me to ask her questions, rather than tell her how I felt about her behavior. I asked her why she was angry, what was going on, I asked to her to help me understand, because I truly wanted to understand.

I was expecting to hear that she wanted to ride the other bus because her friends were on the other bus. I expected to hear that she did not want me telling her that she could not go on the trip. I expected that she might tell me I had embarrassed her in front of her friends, because they could hear everything that was going on. All of these responses would have made sense to me.

Instead, this young woman burst into tears and told me that she had a fight with her mom that morning. She told me that she had been asleep on the couch when her younger brother had started punching her. Emily yelled at him, telling him to “knock it off,” but her younger brother persisted. Emily got up and punched him back and yelled some more. At that point her mom, having been awoken by the yelling, came downstairs and told Emily to pack her stuff and get the fu#& out of her house.

Emily was 18 years old, a senior and a special education student with an emotional behavior disorder. She was over two years behind in credit, and if she could stay on task at school, she might be able to graduate by the time she turned 21.

I started to counsel her on how to repair the relationship with her mom. I made a suggestion that she sleep in her own room and keep the door closed. That was when she started to sob.

Emily told me that she did not have a room, there was no door to close, and she didn’t have any privacy at all. She’d been sleeping on the couch for years, and now that she was 18, she wasn’t technically allowed to live there because her mom was on assistance, Section 8 housing, and because of the number of bedrooms in the home, her mom had left Emily’s name off the application for housing. Had her mom listed her on the application, she would not have qualified for this home under the Section 8 rules.

I was somewhat familiar with Section 8 rules, although I was surprised that this student was as informed as she was, and I knew she was right. I also knew what it was like to grow up in a dysfunctional family. My own parents had divorced after many years of violence, and I had been raised in a single-family home from the time I was 11 years old. My mom was bipolar, and my dad … well, that is a book to be written at another time. I’d also been homeless once, not for very long, but I knew it was scary wondering where you were going to sleep at the end of the day. And, I knew that this young woman was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders that day.

In an effort to try to address the issue of where this young lady was going to stay that night I suggested that she call her mom. I figured that even if her mom was having a rough day, she didn’t really want her child out on the streets that night. Emily looked doubtful, but she was willing to try calling her mom.

From the cell phone, I heard Emily’s mom answer the phone, yelling, “What the hell do you want?” Emily replied, “Shut the fu#& up mom, I’m in the principal’s office.” To which mom replied, “You fu#&in’ ho, don’t be bothering me with this fu#&in’ sh!t. I have to work tonight, I can’t do sh!t to help you with your fu#&in’ mess. Figure it out b!7@h.” And then Emily’s mom hung up.

This was not the conversation I expected. But at least now I understood Emily’s propensity for cussing; it was part of her everyday life.

Emily changed my life that day. I suddenly understood that school was her sanctuary, and that it NEEDED to be her sanctuary. It forced me to identify the real issues facing the students at Paladin.

I spent much of that school year looking into the issues behind every incident that occurred, whether it was a verbal outburst from a student, a fight, a threat, someone skipping school to get high; we looked into everything. The team of educators knew a lot about what was going on behind the scenes in the lives of our students, but even with that knowledge, we did not have a systemwide approach to addressing the real issues.

As a team, we had already started putting together programs to help address issues related to poverty: We connected with the county social services programs, we set aside federal No Child Left Behind funds to address issues of homelessness, and we started collecting data, a ton of data.

We already knew a lot; we knew if a student qualified for free or reduced-price meals (poverty indicator), we knew if a student had a learning disability (special education status), we knew if a student was behind in school (earned credits compared to grade level), we knew if a student was on probation (the probation officers were visiting our school), but we did not know the “rest of the story,” unless the student or family told us.

During that first year at Paladin, we started documenting the stories of our students. We even made a video, because the students themselves wanted to tell their stories. At some point that year, we created a survey for staff that listed every one of our students, and we started compiling what we knew that went beyond the basic demographics we typically tracked.

In that survey, we asked our team to specify how they knew what they knew. Did they know the information from a direct source — the student told us specifically, a family member told us specifically, we had copies of medical records that were sent to us as part of an evaluation process, or something else. We then removed any data that came to us through any means that was considered second-hand information. The questions we asked included things like substance abuse, interactions with the legal system, single-parent homes, were the students living on their own, did they have children of their own, were there other adults involved in their lives, etc. Then we analyzed what we had learned and started making plans to address the issues at a schoolwide level.

This initial data led us into the world of ACEs. I did a Google search for something like “overcoming obstacles in education” or “complex childhood adversity” or something like that. Prior to Emily, prior to that “aha moment” in my office, I was solely looking at outcomes without regard to the obstacles these young people were facing.

But when digging into the backgrounds, in the process to better understand the obstacles themselves, I found Jane Stevens’ article in the Huffington Post, The Adverse Childhood Experience’s Study – the Largest Public Health Survey You Never Heard Of and then I found ACEs Connection. That led me (and all of us at Paladin) to Jim Sporleder and the article about his school, in Walla Walla, Wash.

Suddenly we had a path to follow. We were not the only school facing complex issues, and we knew that we needed to focus on the root causes, not the symptoms. Our students needed to be successful in high school, but even more than that, they needed to be successful in life. They deserved a chance to be successful, even if the cards (and the ACEs) were stacked against them.

I am sharing my journey into the world of ACEs, because this is a complex topic. Addressing ACEs cannot happen in any one venue, with any one person, but rather it takes all of us. It takes communities, schools, social service organizations, medical facilities, first responders, churches, law enforcement … yes, all of us, working together to impact change. The ACEs Connection community gives practitioners the opportunity to do that, to learn, to reach out, to create, to innovate and to change lives. But we are going to need more people, more involvement, more understanding in larger circles, to truly address the underlying issues of ACEs.

As for Emily, she ended up spending a few nights at a friend’s house and we worked though some issues with her mom. We didn’t solve everything that week, that month or even that year. Emily was able to go back to her couch and that was better than the streets.

She graduated from Paladin two years ago. She is working in the medical field now and is pregnant with her second child. She has her own apartment and her own car. She stops by to see us at school periodically, often with her daughter on her hip. She isn’t living the perfect life, but she is living a life where she earns enough money to support herself and her small family, and where she isn’t in danger of daily violence. She is still learning, still growing into adulthood, and she is hopeful for her future. I call that a success.

As for Paladin, we are in the third year of our own research project modeled after the ACE Study, but specifically looking at the obstacles facing youth and students. The hypothesis to our research is that when given a set of obstacles (variables in a student’s life that have the potential to cause harm) and when addressed with a set of interventions (specifically related to the obstacles focused on ACEs and other known educational risk factors), success in high school will increase and success beyond high school will be more likely.

We use a comprehensive intake survey to gather information and to identify ACEs and other obstacles. We deploy interventions and we track everything. The outcomes at this point are looking really positive. We will have enough data by the end of the five-year project to publish results that will be considered statistically valid. And if we are successful in this project, we are looking forward to finding ways to measure the changes in brain activity, neural pathway formation, over the time frame in which interventions are deployed.

I still look at test scores and graduation rates. But my lens is completely different. The stories are nothing like those I expected to be sharing. They are better, because they are more meaningful. They are harder for mainstream education to grasp, I think, but that makes them all the more worth telling. Five years ago, I never would have imagined that this was the path I would be on today.

But I wouldn’t change a thing.

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This article was originally posted by ACEs Too High News.