Breaking the Cycle

In areas with high rates of domestic violence, teachers to get special training

PHOTO: Flickr/jhilldesign1

When children are exposed to violence at home, the aftershocks can ripple into classrooms.

Often on edge and sometimes depressed, those students can struggle to concentrate and control their emotions, causing their grades and relationships to suffer. And with spotty training and limited insight into students’ home lives, teachers can fail to recognize the cause of these problems, much less put a solid plan in place to tackle them.

“Often teachers don’t have the language to talk about this stuff,” said James Waslawski, principal of New Directions Secondary School in the Bronx, a middle school for older students who are behind academically.

He estimates that 90 percent of his students have experienced some form of trauma, the majority of it related to domestic violence. Yet most teachers receive minimal training on how to help students deal with such issues, he added.

“It’s like one-fifth of what they need,” he said.

The city now has a plan to change that. Having identified the neighborhoods with the most reported incidents of domestic violence, trainers will go into the local schools to help teachers spot clues that students might have been exposed to violence, understand how that can affect students, and know what resources are available to them. After they are developed this summer, the three-hour trainings will begin in eight neighborhoods across the city at schools where the education department is already focused on bringing in more mental health and social services.

“This represents a very promising and exciting direction for districts like New York to go in,” said C. Cybele Raver, a vice provost at New York University who has studied how children who watch their parents fight may have trouble regulating their own negative emotions.

The education department is designing the trainings with the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, a partnership that grew out of City Hall’s “Children’s Cabinet” — an effort to improve coordination among 20 city agencies and offices that followed the death of an abused four-year-old boy last year. Education officials realized at the cabinet meetings that they could predict which schools are most likely to serve a higher number of students who have witnessed domestic violence, an official explained during a panel discussion at New York University last month.

“They know exactly which ZIP codes and what neighborhoods have the highest report rates and the highest rates of incidents of domestic violence,” said Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s community schools office. “So knowing that, probably, the students in those schools are witnessing that type of trauma and that type of domestic violence, we’re working on a professional development plan” for those schools.

The initiative will target these neighborhoods with high rates of domestic violence: Morrisania in the Bronx; Brownsville, Bushwick, and East New York in Brooklyn; East Harlem, Inwood, and Washington Heights in Manhattan; and Port Richmond in Staten Island. It will focus on “community schools” in those areas, or schools that receive extra funding to provide additional social services and mental and physical health care to students and their families.

Nationwide, more than one in nine children are exposed to some type of family violence each year, which can include physical attacks like hitting and choking or psychological violence such as threats, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice report. About one in 15 young people are exposed to some sort of physical assault between parents, the report found. Other studies have found that children who witness family violence are more likely to become victims themselves.

“This is a significant issue that has no awareness,” said Brian Martin, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Children of Domestic Violence, which provided free trainings to several hundred education department employees last year. “If you grow up living with domestic violence, that’s childhood domestic violence, and it has a massive impact on the life of that person.”

Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s community schools office, said the trainings were targeted to schools in neighborhoods with the most reports of domestic violence.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s community schools office, said the trainings will target schools in neighborhoods with the most reports of domestic violence.

Children who are exposed to violence at home are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, according to experts, who note that many children are able to cope with such experiences without showing serious problems. Long-term exposure can also act as a “toxic stress” that disrupts children’s brain development, specifically in the areas of memory, attention, and inhibition control, which are all crucial for learning.

That can lead to lower grades and test scores along with behavior problems as students who feel unsafe at home remain on high alert in school, making them easily distractible and prone to overreaction, experts say. If teachers have not studied the effects of trauma on children, they may not recognize such problems as symptoms of a troubled home life, said Raver, the NYU vice provost.

“They can see behavioral difficulty,” she said, “but have no understanding of where that’s coming from.”

The planned trainings for teachers and other school staffers will include an overview of domestic violence, signs that it is occurring, and how it relates to child abuse. They will also cover violence in teen relationships and the services available to families affected by violence.

David Pelcovitz, a professor of psychology and Jewish education at Yeshiva University, said that educators can play a pivotal role in helping students who are exposed to family violence.

Beside their responsibility to report signs of abuse, teachers can run classrooms that provide a sense of safety and predictability for those students, while also helping boost their self-esteem and self-control. Teachers can also act like “quarterbacks” by coordinating the efforts of school and city employees who interact with those students, Pelcovitz said. The city’s planned trainings could help teachers take on those roles, he added.

“They’re the ones on the front line,” he said. “So it’s on us to be more concrete in giving them the skills to support these kids.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.