Behind Broken Doors

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Photo by Rachel Denny Clow/Caller-Times

Elementary school principal George Donovan greets children every day as they get off the bus.

Donovan talks to the bus drivers, who might tell him Johnny seemed a bit tired today or Susie scowled the whole ride.

It could be a sign the child saw daddy hit mommy the night before. It could signal the child lay awake in his bed listening to the argument. Or it could carry no significance at all.

But school officials at Brockton Public Schools in Massachusetts don’t want to leave anything to chance.

Staffers from top to bottom in three elementary schools in the district are trained to be acutely aware of signs a child has experienced trauma. They are ready and willing to take added steps to provide the kids with extra care.

“We have made social emotional issues one of our priorities,” said Salvatore Terrasi, director of pupil personnel services.

“That’s a big deal because in this era of high-stakes testing there’s so much emphasis on tests and academics that sometimes the social emotional aspect of child development gets short changed.”

Three schools in the district are trauma-sensitive, meaning their centralized mission is to “address trauma’s impact on learning on a school wide basis.” Three others are working toward becoming trauma sensitive.

The Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office introduced the schools to Harvard Law School’s Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative. The district became part of the initiative’s research and is an example as the initiative works with other Massachusetts schools to become trauma sensitive. The district attorney’s office pays to get the renewal started.

“If you don’t get kids at the younger level, they’re going to get harder. They’re going to be more traumatized and today’s victims are tomorrow’s offenders,” said Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz.

At nearby Lesley University, a third of the tuition pays for teachers and school staffers to take courses on the impact trauma has on children’s learning and fostering trauma sensitive environments.

They believe their teamwork softens the blow of children’s trauma.

As part of its “Behind Broken Doors” series, the Corpus Christi, Tex., Caller-Times spent two days in Massachusetts to research how trauma-sensitive schools help children exposed to violence.

The series, which started last year, explores domestic violence’s effect on Corpus Christi.

A Fateful Meeting

About eight years ago, a teacher at one of the trauma-sensitive schools might have thought the student in the back of the class who was scanning the room was being willfully disobedient or disrespectful.

Through training from the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, Brockton teachers now consider the possibility that child could be surveying the environment to make sure it’s safe — a result of witnessing violence.

“One reason they’re not paying attention to the blackboard is they’re paying attention to cues they see as threatening,” Terrasi said. “And it’s not that the child is not paying attention. It’s that that child is paying attention to something else.“That child is preoccupied with keeping himself or herself safe. That child is hypervigilant.”

Advocates of trauma-sensitive schools often point to the 1998 landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. The study surveyed about 17,000 adults and discovered a link between childhood trauma and chronic disease, depression, mental illness, violence and becoming a victim of violence in adulthood.

What happened in Brockton could be called fate.

At a time when juvenile delinquency was high, the director of grants and sponsored projects in the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office was searching for solutions. Ed Jacoubs learned about the ACE study, which suggests a child was much more prone to criminal behavior and other problems if he or she had four or more adverse childhood experiences.

That gave Jacoubs better perspective, but that was only half the search. His next hunt was for best practices to address those issues.

In 2007, Jacoubs was giving a presentation at a training session for educators. The speaker scheduled after him was Joel Ristuccia, a school psychologist and consultant with the Massachusetts Advocates for Children’s Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, a partnership with Harvard Law School.

Ristuccia’s son was getting married that day and he asked to switch slots with Jacoubs.

As Ristuccia spoke about the initiative’s book, “Helping Traumatized Children Learn,” Jacoubs remembers listening from the audience and thinking, “Oh my God, this is what we’ve been looking for.”

Jacoubs bought the book. About a week later, on a Friday, he read it.

Excited, he drove the quarter mile from his cramped office on Brockton’s Belmont Street to the school district’s main offices to get the book to Terrasi. He ran past the front office — they all knew him — and flew down the stairs to Terrasi’s basement office.

“You’ve got to read this book,” Jacoubs said.

Building Momentum

By Monday morning, Terrasi had read the 117-page book. He was onboard. Shortly after, they developed training with the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative. The district attorney’s office paid a few thousand dollars to order the books.

That launched a series of meetings — often on Saturdays — with all staff, from custodians and cafeteria workers, teachers and counselors to principals.

Para-professionals are just as important in the mission.

“They’re getting training teachers get and then to say to them, ‘You can make a difference. You are the first person that the child sees in the morning. You take them off the bus. You do make a difference. You’re the last one the child sees before they go home at the end of the day. You can set the stage,'” elementary school principal and former counselor Joanne Camillo said.

Those periodic trainings continue this year.

Between 2011 and 2014, the three trauma-sensitive schools experienced an 80-percent decrease in suspendable issues, and 43 percent fewer office referrals.

The work that’s been going on in Brockton schools is now a model in the initiative’s second book, “Creating and Advocating for Trauma-Sensitive Schools.” Now, the initiative is working with five Massachusetts schools to implement the process in the book.

The group is also working on developing an online system to help other school districts that want to become trauma sensitive. They’ve done trainings and had interest from across the country and internationally.

[The movement is gaining traction.]

But Mike Gregory, a senior attorney with the initiative, said trauma sensitivity can’t be mandated.

“It’s got to be about hearts and minds. Brockton is a perfect example of that,” Gregory said.

Sound Advice

Every morning, before the kids arrived, John Snelgrove, Department Head of Guidance, poured through Brockton police reports.

For about two years, Snelgrove cross-referenced the addresses where police were called for domestic violence with those of the more than 17,000 students in the district. If he found a match, he told the school adjustment counselor who alerted the teachers.

Sometimes the address pinpointed an apartment complex, but the report didn’t specify which apartment. The counselors identified every student that lived in the whole complex.

The teachers didn’t know all the circumstances. They didn’t even know if the kids were present. And they didn’t need to. A counselor’s advice to go easy on a child that day told the teachers all they needed.

The child wouldn’t be penalized for not having their homework, but instead given an opportunity to finish it during the day. The teacher wouldn’t punish the child for seeming tired and distracted. Instead they would give them a bit more attention.

“Getting that information on a regular basis helped our counselors and our teachers support kids,” Snelgrove said.

A change in Massachusetts law last year to classify domestic violence like sexual assaults tightens victims’ privacy and limits the information now available to schools. For about a year the district has had to suspend the practice.

“It’s frustrating at times because we’re all in this to help the children. If something happened that night that they might have witnessed, how can we support them?” Snelgrove asked.

The initiative has worked with Cambridge police and schools to find ways to provide that information to schools without violating privacy laws. Brockton school officials hope to adopt the way Cambridge does it.

Beyond Prosecution

In Brockton, a high school senior can’t buy a prom ticket without first listening to the district attorney and police chief talk.

It’s one of the prevention tactics the county’s top prosecutor and schools partner on.

“At the end of the day, our job is to protect the community and the best way to protect it, I think, is to try to prevent things before they happen,” Cruz said.

….Juvenile delinquency in Brockton has gone down 75 percent from 15 years ago, a feat for which Jacoubs credits the schools.

“I say it’s because the schools have this kind of attitude where they’re taking kids early and engaging them,” Jacoubs said. “Whether it’s paying the benefits academically, I can’t speak to that. But I can tell you it’s paying the benefits in the community, without question.”

And school officials know they can count on the district attorney’s office.

“Their mission is not only the point of view of prosecution, but prevention,” Terrasi said.

Krista Torralva, a staff writer for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is a 2015-2016 John Jay /Solutions Journalism Network Reporting Fellow. The above story is part of a three-part series prepared as a project for the Fellowship. A longer version of the story and other parts of the series are available HERE. Krista welcomes comments from readers

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