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A South LA high school steps up effort to help students besieged by trauma

A South LA high school steps up effort to help students besieged by trauma

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(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Along with books and backpacks, the teens who walk through the hallways of Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles also carry secrets and fear.

Some have seen moms or dads arrested or taken away by immigration agents during early morning raids. They've watched as loved ones and friends were gunned down or stabbed to death on the sidewalks in front of where they live. Others dread going home to an adult who hurts instead of heals.

Trauma, depression and anxiety weigh heavily on the minds of many of the young students who fill the classrooms of Washington Prep in the Westmont neighborhood, where poverty and lack of resources are the norm.

“We screen for anxiety, depression and PTSD,” Pia Escudero, executive director of student health and human services for the Los Angeles Unified School District, told a group of 2019 California Fellows recently. “The numbers are alarming and they've been alarming for 20 years. They just keep growing."

But Escudero and other district officials say a small community clinic at the corner of the campus is making a big impact. More students and nearby residents are walking into its doors for help for everything from managing aches and pains to unloading the worries they carry.

The St. John's Well Child And Family Center at Washington Prep is one of 15 such LAUSD school-based health clinics. Its existence is unique in a district known as the second largest in the nation, with about 600,000 students. The district says 80 percent of its students qualify for free lunches, an indicator of poverty.

Partially funded with Medicaid dollars from the the Los Angeles County's Department of Mental Health, the centers were opened a few years ago after the district mapped out health outcomes at 50 comprehensive high schools a and noticed a trend at Washington Prep.

"We looked at obesity rates, (sexually transmitted infection) rates, poverty, trauma exposure and Medi-Cal, and found that there were great difference between students’ experience in schools like Washington Prep and others schools further west and north," said Ron Tanimura, director of student medical services at LAUSD.

"As we ranked them, we found that Washington Prep was one of our neediest schools," he added.

Through partnerships with the county, LAUSD, St. John’s and the L.A. Trust, the clinic was built on campus and data show that its utilization has increased.

In 2015, there were 1,269 unique visits to the clinic, with more than a third of those students The next year, the visits almost doubled to 2,805, with 758 students.

Most students come in with health issues related to sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, and asthma but mental health needs also ranks in the top 10, according to figures provided by the L.A.Trust, an organization that focuses on bringing health services to schools within the LAUSD.

Watching the health centers grow at schools in some of the most violent neighborhoods in Los Angeles has been a learning experience, said Maryjane Puffer, executive director for the L.A. Trust. As stigma surrounding mental health issues are shed, more services become needed as are more partnerships with agencies that can help, she said.

"It has been an evolution, a learning experience," she said.

She and others believe the health centers have helped the district move toward a “trauma-informed” approach. The approach includes asking: "What happened to you?" rather than "What is wrong with you?" as a way to help students recover and grasp the larger forces shaping students’ behavior or health. In addition, the district supports programs aimed at preventing negative outcomes, such as anger management counseling, and support groups for students for families under stress because of deportation fears, for example.

Joel Cisneros, director for school mental health at LAUSD, said that when students attend weekly therapy sessions, their class attendance starts to stabilize.

"Months after they finish the treatment, their attendance rises," he noted.

A high school senior named Damion, 18, has been named class valedictorian each year he's attended Washington Prep. He's played football and is popular on campus. He is also a voice actor, music producer and operates a podcast. But while his family has held him to high standards, some members have not been supportive of his decision to go to college, citing financial challenges. Because of that lack of support, he has recently felt stressed.

“I ended up punching a wall," he said, and was admitted in to the hospital with a broken hand. "I was really out of it."

Damion said he turned to school’s psychiatric social worker, who told him to step back and take care of himself."One thing I learned is to basically center myself," he said.

For another student named Melvin, also 18, the health services he received at school pulled him out of a hole he thought he'd never escape. He was one of those kids, he said, who had stopped going to classes altogether, got shot in the right arm, and was left paranoid with fear and anxiety each morning. The mental health services he received on campus helped him improve his grades, and he’s now eager to pursue his interest in fashion design at Humboldt State University.

"As far as my dreams, I just know I want to succeed," he said. "I just want to be the best I can be."

Washington Prep principal Dechele Byrd, who attended the school as a youth before becoming a teacher, said she wanted to return to her old campus to give the students more opportunities than she had. She has tried to make sure students have trustworthy adults on campus who can them process and heal from trauma.

"Our students experience more than what I experienced as a student," Byrd said. "Although going to school in the 1980s was a difficult time to navigate and there were a lot of episodes of violence, we had more family united to support the war on drugs. But the families have been decimated now and the school site has become an important place to be a family unit."

She said the motto at the school when she was growing up was, "We are family."

"We still hold that," Byrd said. "We try really hard to remove the stigmas behind the support of care. Unfortunately, my students experience traumatic experiences day to day. They need to have the resources and support that can help them."

Despite those challenges and the lack of resources, the story of Washington Prep is one of moving forward, Escudero said.

“Despite that, we can try to heal and watch our children thrive,” Escudero said.


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Thanks for writing this article, especially in these times when immigrant families are under the threat of deportation.
Also, you might want to add a missing word in the following line: " campus who can them process and heal from trauma."

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What an uplifting report on what is possible through focused partnerships. Supporting students' mental, physical and dental health is the first very real and necessary step toward learning. Thanks to all for helping students, teachers and schools succeed.

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