Table of Contents for this Blog Series
I’m currently reading and blogging about Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education by Alex Shevrin Venet.
Chapter 2 Defining Equity
This chapter seeks to address two questions:
- How does inequity in school cause or worsen student trauma?
- Is school equitable for students who struggle with the impact of trauma in their lives? (Spoiler alert: It’s not)
This chapter will also expand on Principle 1 from the Principles of Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education (See table 1.1 on p. 13-14):
Principle 1 – Trauma-informed education is antiracist and against all forms of oppression.
I. What Is Equity?
“All students are capable of learning and should have access to an education that helps them grow and learn.” (p. 21) This is what we all want to believe, but biases, systems, and policies all demonstrate that this belief is not a reality for so many students. If this belief were true then we wouldn’t be able to predict students’ academic success based solely on where they live. (Here’s an article that talks about this idea more: Student Success Comes Down to Zip Code)
- Educational Equity – “the process of ensuring that all students can access high-quality education, that they are fully included in their school communities, that they are able to engage in meaningful and challenging academic work, and that they can do all of this in an environment that values them as people” (p. 22) (Children are not cogs in the school machine. Rather, they’re human beings and their humanity should be front and center with regards to resources provided for them and decisions made about them.)
- Equity (as defined by the National Equity Project) – “all children receiving ‘what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential'” (p. 22) (This needs to be sustainable change, not a one-off intervention or support. This is why we have to look at changing systems, not just actions of individuals.)
- Equality – Treating everyone the same (Not everyone needs the same things to be successful and some need more than others. This seems to be a sticking point with many people who challenge equity with calls for “fairness.” They believe it’s unfair for one group to be given “more” than another, not recognizing that one group already has so much more than the other from the get go. Another fear is having to give up something in order to provide for others. At a recent school board meeting, a community member gave a rambling speech about the problem with equity efforts in our district and specifically shared her fear that talented students will lose access to AP classes as a result. As far as I know, there are no calls to reduce the number of AP classes offered.)
To bring about sustainable, meaningful change, we have to look at systems as interrelated – schools, healthcare, and the economy. I attended a State Board of Education panel discussion in Texas a couple of years ago where they talked about the idea of incorporating mental health services within school buildings because their data showed teenagers are one of the largest populations that needs these services. If the services are close at hand, they are more likely to be utilized and the negative impacts on student learning will be lessened.
A. Equity Literacy
We can’t just snap our fingers (or read one book!) and suddenly our teaching practices will become more equitable. It is a learning process that takes “time, new knowledge, and skills development.” (p. 23) Venet suggests viewing this process as an action-research project where we work in cycles of continuous improvement. We need “practice, coaching, role models, and time” (p. 24) but more importantly we have to get started. “Our students can’t wait for us to become experts before we act.” (p. 24) Embrace failing forward.
B. Equity and Holding Many Perspectives at Once
We have to practice looking beyond individuals and instead look through systemic and structural lenses. This involves asking a lot of questions. If you see an issue that appears inequitable, you need to interrogate it to understand why it’s happening and you have to ask those questions at multiple levels because chances are there is no simple answer, rather a multi-faceted one. Learning to see these many levels and perspectives helps us develop an equity lens. We start to understand there are many factors that contribute to each student’s success (or lack thereof) in school.
This section reminded me of the work my previous district undertook to tackle inequity issues in advanced math class enrollment in one of our high school feeder patterns. A variety of stakeholders in our district partnered with E3 Alliance to analyze data and interrogate the current system to identify the kinds of changes that needed to be made in order to increase enrollment particularly for Black students and other students of color. Here’s a short video that talks about the changes they made:
II. The Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Connection
“…traditional structures of school can be, at best, trauma-indifferent and, at worst, trauma-inducing.” (p. 27)
A. Inequity in Schools Can Cause and Worsen Trauma
It’s a limited view to assume that trauma only occurs outside of schools. It’s an uncomfortable truth that schools can cause trauma. These causes can include teachers, policies, and other students. While hearing this may make teachers feel uncomfortable, looking away and ignoring it doesn’t help anyone. We need “to reckon with practices and attitudes currently causing harm.” (p. 28) Here are three examples of how schools can cause trauma:
1. Bullying and Harassment
Bullying and harassment can have lasting negative consequences for students. While some might characterize this behavior as “kids being kids” it’s really not because not all kids are equally susceptible to bullying and harassment. Students who are more likely to be bullied or harassed are LGBTQ students, students with disabilities, and students of color. Bullying is about power.
Many anti-bullying campaigns focus on being kind or teaching students not to be bystanders, but these strategies don’t work because they’re not systemic. They’re relying on the actions of individuals. Instead, we need to work to create “equitable, affirming school environments. Our efforts toward equity can help decrease bullying as as a potential source of trauma.” (p. 29)
“School leaders and teachers, while not wholly responsible for the existence of racism and bias in society, are responsible for how racism and bias are interrupted and dismantled in our schools.” (p. 29) Inaction and silence perpetuate trauma and inequity.
2. Police and Zero-Tolerance Policies
Bringing police into schools is done out of a desire for safety, but safety for whom? If we use our equity lens and look at this from multiple levels we see that for Black students the police are not considered safe when so many Black people are shot and killed by police officers with an alarming frequency. Having police present in schools is a daily reminder of this collective trauma and can cause further harm.
“…mere interactions with officers can lead to lasting psychological stress.” (p. 31) I remember driving on Riverside Drive in Austin one evening during college and the sudden panic I felt when a police car turned on its lights behind me. I quickly pulled over, my heart racing and panic setting in. I frantically asked myself, “What did I do? I have no idea what I was doing wrong.” The police officer walked over to my car and said, “I know this isn’t really appropriate, but I had to know is your license plate inspired by Star Trek?” I’ll admit that I felt immediate relief knowing that I wasn’t in trouble for anything, but at the same time I was angry that I was made to feel so scared and anxious all to satisfy a cop’s curiosity. Some students feel similar feelings on a daily basis just being in their schools even if they don’t have to interact with the police.
Police officers in schools are often not trained appropriately to work in this setting. While most have training in school shooting prevention, “only 54% are trained in interacting with students with disabilities, and fewer than 40% have received training in understanding child trauma.” (p. 29) This can lead to traumatic interactions between students and police officers. Venet shares several examples of 6-8(!) year old Black girls who were arrested at their schools. Black girls are disproportionately judged to be a threat or safety issue by their teachers and involving police can cause real harm to these children.
Venet goes on to talk about how the presence of police officers in schools contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. Teachers have to make judgments about when to involve the police, and small decisions can escalate typical behavior that school personnel should handle into criminalized behavior that involves the police and possible criminal penalties.
I’m reminded of an issue in my former district where three high school students received class C misdemeanor citations for stealing animal crackers out of the faculty lounge. You can read a local news story about the incident here. Did the police really need to be involved in this incident or could the staff have handled the discipline on their own with a punishment like detention? As adults, we have to consider the impact of our decisions about how we respond to student behavior.
You might even say there is a school-to-prison nexus because some schools appear to operate as prisons. The students have to wear uniforms, put up with random searches, get punished for not walking on the lines in the hallways or for not staying silent at lunch. “These conditions are not trauma-informed; they are trauma-inducing.” (p. 31) This reminds me of a story my colleague told me about her daughter when she was in 1st grade. She had to take her to the doctor because she was having severe stomach pain. The doctor couldn’t find anything physically wrong with her. Eventually they were able to figure out that her stomach was hurting from all the anxiety she was feeling at school because she was never allowed to talk. Her teacher required the students to constantly work in silence, and the whole school was suffering through silent lunches because the lunch monitors felt like it was too loud in the cafeteria. The only time the students could be themselves and express themselves during their 7 hour school day was during their 15 minutes of recess everyday. Bottling it in all day, day after day, and being afraid of getting in trouble was physically hurting her daughter.
3. Curriculum Violence and Racial Trauma
We’ve looked at how other students and even the police can be sources of trauma at school, but in this final example we turn the lens on ourselves and look at how teachers can be a source of trauma for students. One way is through the lessons we teach. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across a Twitter thread about the latest simulation or experiential lesson that causes harm. Here’s a 2019 article from Learning for Justice that shares a specific example of this kind of curriculum violence:
Once again, a U.S. school is in the news for a classroom slavery lesson gone horribly wrong. According to one black student in a fifth-grade class at The Chapel School in Bronxville, New York, last week his teacher had all the black students go into the hallway so she could “put imaginary chains along our necks and wrists, and shackles on our ankles.”
The students were then allegedly led back into the classroom, where their white classmates were encouraged to “bid” on them in a mock auction.Another Slavery Simulation: We Can and Must Do Better, Teaching Tolerance, 2019
The teacher shared that she never intended harm to her students, but the fact of the matter is that our intentions don’t matter, the impact of our actions does.
If you want to learn more about curriculum violence, here’s another great article from Learning for Justice called “Ending Curriculum Violence.”
Our Role in the Harm
We have to acknowledge that schools can be a source of trauma for our students, and that the harm is made worse because students often expect schools to be a place of safety. We also have to accept responsibility for our role, not just as individuals but also as a system, in causing trauma and harm to our students. It might make us feel shame or regret, and that’s okay, but we have to work through it. “Understanding the harm our students experience in our schools is essential for us to take action to make things better.” (p. 34)
B. School Isn’t Equitable for Trauma-Affected Students
“Schools can be indifferent to how trauma affects children, even outright retraumatizing and harmful.” (p. 34)
Trauma’s Impact on Learning
This section focuses on the way students who are impacted by trauma can sometimes have an easily triggered fight or flight response. This can impact learning because when the response is triggered the student may be unable to focus on complex tasks. It is important to note that this can result in poor school performance, but this does not mean that these students are poor learners. Rather, these students just need responses from teachers that are considerate of their specific needs in order to be successful learners. Unfortunately, it all comes down to how teachers and other adults interpret student behavior, particularly students experiencing trauma who are triggered.
Punitive Discipline, Seclusion, and Restraint
“Teachers can perpetuate inequity when we choose to see student behavior as defiant or unruly rather than a normal response to stress and trauma.” (p. 36)
This idea of how we interpret student behavior is really powerful and begs the question: What impacts the way teachers interpret student behavior differently? If we can better understand what is causing educators to view student behavior in certain ways, we can try to counter those interpretations to help steer these adults into providing more trauma-informed responses. Otherwise these teachers may respond in ways that are trauma-indifferent or trauma-inducing, particularly when responses such as physical restraint are used. We can end up creating cycles of trauma that causes further harm to our students.
This section ends with one suggestion for how we can respond to student behavior in a trauma-informed way: restorative justice. This is a “paradigm shift that focuses on building community and repairing harm between people, rather than compliance and obedience based on rules.” (p. 38)
Don’t Fall Into a Deficit Trap
“It can feel like a contradiction to hear ‘don’t ignore the impact of trauma’ and also ‘don’t define a child by trauma,’ but both things can be true at once.” (p. 39)
III. Creating Trauma-Informed Systems, Not Fixing Kids
This section reinforces the idea that we have to prevent trauma, not just respond to it. Often we put the burden on students, focusing on building their resilience to trauma. Unfortunately this doesn’t remove the traumatic experiences from their lives. “The thing is, the problem isn’t ever the children themselves: the problem is the adults who choose to harm children, or the conditions that adults create that cause harm to children.” (p. 40)
Focusing on resilience is an “equity detour” that distracts us. Yes, we need to help students impacted by unjust systems within and outside of schools, but we also need to work on dismantling those systems to prevent the trauma in the first place. We need resilient systems, not just resilient children.