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Commentary: Confronting trauma in our schools

By Julia Mejia and Ron Walker

Imagine being 8- and 12-year-old siblings swept from your home in the Dominican Republic with your family, and, just six months after arriving in Boston, being abandoned by your mother.

Now you’re in a new country with new customs, new schools, no friends and can’t speak a bit of the language. It should have surprised no one when these 8- and 12-year-olds had serious behavioral challenges – they were undergoing a significant trauma.

Trauma is usually associated with violence. But for many of the young people in our lives, like these two sisters, it can be far more than bullets on the streets — poverty, war, health issues, family incarceration or even “smaller” events like parents fighting over money — trauma relates to any event that can change how they approach their lives.

When defining trauma, we allude to any life event that alters your world view and your day to day movements — it affects how you socialize, how you process information, how you function.

Trauma lives, breaths and, too often, reins in many urban classrooms. All of us — educators, families, policymakers and neighbors — need to spend more time understanding it and supporting our children as they move through it.

Recently, a gathering of educators brought together by our two organizations, worked to do more than scratch beneath the surface and some dramatic trends emerged:

I. Too often, we see the effects of trauma through young people’s behavior — they stop paying attention in class, their grades drop, they struggle to participate in daily activities while they deal with the stress. As students walk around classrooms dealing with these effects internally, we need to be aware of the root cause and respond appropriately, rather than simply addressing symptomatic behavior.

II. Trauma cuts across all walks of life and all types of schools. We should embrace the opportunity to collaborate with schools across Boston — district, charter, religious, independent — to further improve our support for students.

III. As a community, we can and should help students by creating policies that reflect our understanding of trauma and healthy recovery. We urge local and state leaders to continue to learn about the effects of traumatic experiences and how to best address them in the classroom.

We used the personal testimonies of women who experienced trauma to shed light on the bigger challenge — how can we create an environment where educators and service providers coming in contact with students on a regular basis explore the issues of trauma and understand what our kids go through.

We heard from Tina Chery, founder, president and CEO of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, about how the murder of Louis Brown led to the creation of the Peace Institute as a means of healing families and communities impacted by murder, grief, trauma and loss. We also heard the powerful story of Dr. Lonise Bias, who lost a son to cocaine intoxication in 1986, just two days after he was drafted by the Boston Celtics. Four years later, she would lose a second son when he was killed by a drive by shooter.

Trauma, however, can come in less extreme forms as well. Many young people are walking around with untreated or undetected trauma. Parents and students are surviving the loss of loved ones, dealing with hunger and a lack of medical care and living in fear. Yet there remains an expectation that we keep it together while everything feels like it is falling apart.

We heard from Conan Harris, director of My Brother’s Keeper Boston, about his experiences with gang activity and incarceration, and gave us a first-hand look at what kids face in the streets of Boston. We heard from Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley about how she grew up with her father behind bars and being a sexual abuse survivor, and it helped us take off our masks to recognize the trauma in our own lives.

It’s through these stories of hardship and strength that we as educators need to use as a catalyst to find new ways to help our students deal with the traumas in their lives.

Let us begin by establishing places for students to heal — when we hear about a trauma, for example, a child’s parent being incarcerated, let us think about the healing process and counseling for the child and how our schools generally can be more responsive.

Given the new Trump administration, and all that has bubbled up before, during, and after the election, let us look at how to better support the social and emotional development of students. We are eager to work with families, educators and policy makers across the state to take a close look at funding, current policies and how other cities address trauma and its effects on our students.

There’s no time to waste.

Julia Mejia is Founder and Director of the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network (CPLAN) and Ron Walker is Executive Director of the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color (COSEBOC)