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Lucia Mar begins the inner workings of becoming a trauma-informed school district 

According to a 2015 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than two-thirds of children in the U.S. reported experiencing at least one traumatic event by the age of 16.

That could mean psychological, physical, or sexual abuse; community or school violence; witnessing or experiencing domestic violence; natural disasters or terrorism; commercial sexual exploitation; sudden or violent loss of a loved one; refugee or war experiences; military family-related stressors; physical or sexual assault; neglect; serious accidents; or a life-threatening illness.

In order to help students overcome those traumas, public school districts are looking at services and practices to best address these students. Lucia Mar Unified School District is taking the initial steps to become trauma-informed and has created centers to provide services for students.

Wendy Bruse is the district coordinator for Families in Transition, a program that aids students and their families with services and basic needs to support educational stability. Bruse is also head of the district's current move toward becoming trauma-informed.

To be trauma-informed, Bruse said, means to understand what the best practices are for a student as a whole—figuring out why a student has certain behaviors or why their academic performance may be low. Understanding what the student is going through in their personal life could uncover a trauma that can be addressed.

"If we're seeing certain behaviors from a student, instead of shutting down those behaviors with just discipline, we look at how we can best work with that student," she said.

For example, Bruse said, if there is a student who is speaking out during class, a teacher might tell them, "I need you to stop talking," and if the behavior continues, send them to the office.

"Now, we're asking people instead of just telling them what not to do, maybe give that student two minutes of your time every day and get to know that student on a different level," she said. "And it has to be authentic, because kids can read right through everything."

There are some identifiers that the staff is advised to look for in students going through trauma: academics, attendance, test scores, and behavior. There are usually trends or patterns that staff can look to, Bruse said, to see if something's going on with a student.

If a student is experiencing homelessness, he or she may not be turning in their homework or regularly attending their classes, resulting in poor grades. Bruse said when the teacher sees a pattern, he or she can approach the student and point them in the direction of the right services.

Being trauma-informed is something that Pamela Vona can talk about all day. She is the program manager for the Treatment and Services Adaptation Center for Trauma in Schools, which promotes trauma-informed school systems that provide prevention and early intervention strategies to create supportive and nurturing school environments.

The Los Angeles based-organization started after a man with mental illness who lived in an apartment across the street from 49th Street Elementary School (Los Angeles County Unified School District) opened fire on students in 1984 as they were dismissed from their classes. The shock and trauma of the event prompted LAUSD to establish the first formal policy requiring all schools and the district at-large to organize crisis intervention teams.

Vona said that the crisis teams found that many students had experienced other forms of trauma in their personal lives. From there, the organization understood that there was a need for mental health support for students returning to school, restoring the emotional safety of school environment, and supporting the resumption of teaching and learning.

Many school districts, Vona said, are moving in the trauma-informed direction to help their students but the key is the district as a whole needs to be on the same page.

"I think the No. 1 first step and what we are really encouraging districts to do is universally across all school staff, there needs to be a formal training on how trauma is impacting our students," she said.

In order to assist those students, Nipomo and Arroyo Grande high schools created wellness centers on campus. These are hubs where students can voluntarily go for services that include mental health counseling, on-going counseling sessions, Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, suicide prevention, basic needs (school supplies, toiletries, or food), and medical nurses.

The overall goal for the district is to be more mindful of all the elements in a child's life.

Vona said she urges that as much as districts focus on their students, they should also focus on their teachers.

"There's this tricky relationship where we want schools to become this setting where there is this consistency and predictability, those things that some of our kids aren't getting in their family homes," she said.

When you have teachers who are significantly stressed out from their own lives, their own potential traumatic experiences, that's also impacting how they behave and interact with students. Vona said those teachers are more likely to burn out and leave—maybe for a child this could be related to abandonment. When a teacher leaves, that could trigger trauma all over again. Δ

Staff writer Karen Garcia can be reached at [email protected].

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