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.”

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

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.