Girls coping with trauma are often met with harsh discipline at school

CREDIT: iStock Photo
CREDIT: iStock Photo

During a recent event at the White House focusing on how schools should be addressing the traumatic experiences of girls, and girls of color in particular, a Latina student talked about the childhood abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather.

“I never really coped with my anger. I thought [the teachers] don’t care about you,” she said.

But then she received help from counselors through a trauma-informed approach, called PACE, which stands for playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy. This allows the student to feel safer in the classroom and fosters better trust with adults and other children by fostering a more positive teacher-student relationship, and in turn, helps students form bonds with other students. Mindfulness practices are also part of PACE.

“I had a counselor and she told me things similar to my story and that’s when I started opening my eyes. With their actions and everything they’re trying to do to put a smile on your face, you start noticing that it’s true, it’s not just a myth [that teachers care],” she said.

U.S. Department of Education Secretary John King, who shared his own traumatic childhood experiences at the event, said that it’s important for children who have experienced trauma to be able to be children at school. But too often, racially disparate and harsh student discipline push girls of color out of school — and sometimes into the criminal justice system — instead of getting them they help they need to cope with trauma.

Although caring teachers like the ones the Florida student encountered are important, King said it’s important to ensure that these changes are systemic, not individual.

“Ultimately it is about how we create school environments that save kids’ lives. This isn’t about heroic acts of individuals. It can’t be,” King said at last week’s White House event. “We have to create systems for our kids… It’s not so simple as invest in children a sense of hope.”

What is happening to traumatized girls at school

CREDIT: iStock Photo
CREDIT: iStock Photo

Ten million girls experience rape or attempted rape during their youth, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and that doesn’t even account for the various types of trauma female students may be experiencing.

“A sobering finding is that the bulk of this adversity was being borne by young women,” said Dr. Roy Wade Jr. of 2013 research from the CDC and Kaiser Permanente on young people who have had adverse childhood experiences. “Women are at higher risk, and we used to think of that as solely sexual abuse, but women endorsed higher levels of all individual [adverse childhood experiences].”

Twenty-three percent of the girls in that study did report a history of childhood sexual abuse, with many of the perpetrators being their biological fathers. The median age of the girls when they experienced this abuse was 8 years old, while the median age of the perpetrator was 32.

“Some of these girls are abused daily, some over 10 years, and I see them when they are teenagers — so when do they have time to go through normal development of young people?” Wade said.

Many times, girls struggle to concentrate in class because they are thinking about what happened the night before or what may happen the next night, Wade explained. Some are trying to cope with these incidents through self-medication by using alcohol and drugs. All of this context is necessary for school resource officers, teachers, and administrators to keep in mind when they pursue purely punitive approaches to student discipline, experts say.

Research on adverse childhood experiences has found that, across the board, girls suffer from higher levels of traumatic experiences than boys do. In addition, research has shown that social disadvantages can make one more vulnerable to trauma, and that women of color had lower rates of well being.

All of this means girls of color who have experienced trauma are also particularly vulnerable to being pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline through harsh student discipline. Although the discussion of a school-to-prison pipeline mostly focuses on boys of color, a 2015 University of Pennsylvania study found that in 13 Southern states that altogether had 55 percent of suspensions and 50 percent of expulsions nationally, black female students had higher rates of suspensions and expulsions. Nationally, black girls make up 8 percent of enrolled students in the United States but represent 14 percent of students receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

“The bulk of this adversity was being borne by young women.”

Sometimes girls of color need to be protected from the school resource officers themselves. In one case in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the Justice Department found incidents of guards sexually harassing students and telling students they wouldn’t be reported for a violation if they gave them some form of sexual contact. The department’s report detailed an incident where a security guard called a student a “sexy young chocolate lady” and asked if he could “put his private area on her back.” After an investigation, the guard was transferred to another school — where he was accused of doing the same thing to another student.

How to change student discipline practices

Discipline practices need to address the root of the problem and ask young people why they’re angry and getting into fights at school, rather than simply addressing the behavior itself. By handcuffing or isolating students, which can re-traumatize them, or through suspending and expelling students, which pushes them out of school, staff are only making matters worse.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, CEO and founder of the Center for Youth Wellness, gave the example of doctors who, centuries ago, passed germs from one person to another because they didn’t know germs existed, and thus didn’t wash their hands properly before seeing another patient. She said school resource officers are doing the same thing by using harsh student discipline on misbehaving kids.

“Instead of asking ‘What is wrong with you?’ why don’t we ask, ‘What happened to you?’”

“When a 7-year-old boy having a tantrum in school, he’s yelling and he’s screaming and the security officer comes in and handcuffs him and takes him away, that is equivalent of a doctor going from one germ-laden surgery and reaching right into the next thing… Is there a way to de-escalate the situation? Does this child have a deregulated stress response? Instead of asking ‘What is wrong with you?’ why don’t we ask, ‘What happened to you?’”

That is exactly what the U.S. Department of Jutice’s Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta said officers need to do.

According to Gupta, officers need to ask students open-ended questions rather than make assumptions and take an accusatory tone, especially in incidents where students are victims and reporting incidents of sexual assault. Schools need to invest in counselors and direct students to substance abuse treatment rather than simply punishing students for bringing drugs and alcohol on the school campus. At community schools, which offer social service on or near the campus, students may be able to directly go from an administrator’s office to seek counseling or therapy.

Gupta gave an example of a district investigated by the Justice Department as guidance for what schools need to do to address the needs of students of color, including girls of color with traumatic childhood experiences.

In the U.S. Department of Justice’s settlement with the Meridian School District in Mississippi — which was found to be guilty of exclusionary student discipline, such as expulsions, suspension, and alternative placement for students of color — the school was required to improve students’ due process protections in discipline hearings, stop officers from getting involved in minor incidents of student discipline, and mandate officer training on bias-free policing and developmentally appropriate policing. The department also suggested using positive behavior intervention, which focuses on rewarding positive social behavior rather than punishing students for misbehavior.