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Future of Crocker school's trauma-informed work questioned after layoffs

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Future of Crocker school's trauma-informed work questioned after layoffs

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This story was produced as part of a project for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

Read related stories in this series here.

Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep counselor Rochelle Gauthier gets a hug from a student during lunch at the school in New Orleans
Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep counselor Rochelle Gauthier gets a hug from a student during lunch at the school in New Orleans on Thursday, December 7, 2017.
(Photo: Brett Duke/ | The Times-Picayune) | The Times-Picayune
Wednesday, September 26, 2018

For the last four years, Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep in New Orleans has been at the forefront of an experiment in how to prevent the trauma schoolchildren face from derailing their education. But the Milan-neighborhood school's continued involvement with the city's trauma-informed learning collaborative is in question after Crocker's lead social worker was abruptly laid off less than two months into the school year.

Rochelle Gauthier said her sixth school year at New Orleans College Prep – the charter company that manages Crocker and two other schools – ended Sept. 17. She was called to the principal's office at the end of the school day and told she was being let go, effective immediately, she said.

"Letting me go at a moment's notice is the farthest thing from showing trauma-informed practices," Gauthier said. "I cannot fathom who thought this was a good idea and this was best for children."

Gauthier's position is one of 12 eliminated across the New Orleans College Prep network, which includes Cohen College Prep and Hoffman Early Learning Center. Six of those positions were vacant, College Prep leaders have said. The layoffs came, in part, due to declining enrollment, College Prep CEO Joel Castro told a crowded Cohen auditorium during the charter network's board meeting Monday (Sept. 24).

College Prep spokeswoman Troave Profice said Crocker's principal and one of its deans would lead the school's continued participation in the learning collaborative, launched in 2015 by New Orleans' health department in collaboration with social service agencies and Tulane University's psychology department.

Gauthier had been instrumental in Crocker's work the learning collaborative, leading staff training on ways to identify signs and symptoms of trauma in students. She helped the school revise its discipline policies to reduce its reliance on suspensions – something that had been a hallmark of most post-Katrina charter school networks.

Crocker's efforts were featured in | The Times-Picayune's series "The Children of Central City," which earlier this year detailed how chronic exposure to violence alters a child's brain development and other systems in the body, and what – if anything – is being done to help the city's youngest residents cope with the scars of that trauma. The series has prompted calls from city officials to expand trauma-informed efforts.

In a letter to the New Orleans College Prep board, the collaborative's leaders criticized the decision to lay off Gauthier as well as the timing – weeks after the New Orleans City Council passed consecutive resolutions calling for a citywide approach to addressing childhood trauma.

"We cannot understand why, at the very moment that our entire city is poised to address the problem of trauma among our students, your organization has chosen to turn its back on these efforts – and these students – and terminate the one staff member in your organization who was moving the work forward," the collaborative's leaders wrote in the letter, dated Sept. 21.

The letter also accused College Prep leaders of retraumatizing students by not allowing Gauthier, as a mental health provider, to ethically end her relationship with her clients – in this case, students and their families – in a way that does not harm them.

"This experience is likely to bring up painful memories of other losses all too common in our community," the collaborative's leaders wrote. "It is also likely to sow beliefs that adults can't be trusted or relied upon or that the students, themselves, are not worthy of our love. Unfortunately, these are not the life skills for success you strive to develop in your students; they are life skills for failure and despair."

Profice said Gauthier did not have a "formalized caseload of students assigned to her," and the school's remaining social worker will continue to provide services to students and families. In a written message to the charter network's families and staff, College Prep leaders said the decision to let staff go the same day they were notified was done to give those staff members time to find other employment "without transitionary job distractions."

Two other Crocker staff members were let go around the same time as Gauthier. Additionally, the school's former principal, Nicole Boykins, left at the end of the previous school year. Both Crocker and Boykins were featured in "The Children of Central City."

The series cited an Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies survey of 77 randomly selected Crocker students, ages 11 to 15, which found one in four had witnessed a murder and more than half had someone close to them murdered.

"The most important work we can do to serve students is to create safe and supportive learning environments where they can fully engage with the academic opportunities provided," the collaborative's leaders wrote to the College Prep board. Students whose mental health is neglected, the letter continues, "will increase demands on teachers in classrooms, because students cannot learn unless they feel safe and supported and their mental health needs are addressed."

Among those in attendance at Monday night's College Prep board meeting was Crocker pre-K teacher Audrey Johnson, who called the decision to lay off Gauthier "shameful."

"She was at the forefront of this movement years before trauma-informed school was a buzzword in education," Johnson said.

Crocker parent Jessica LiRocchi said Gauthier worked with her third-grade daughter. She said her daughter turned to her last week and said: "All the people that were my support at Crocker, that I feel safe with, that I trust, are all gone."

Staff reporter Wilborn P. Nobles III contributed to this story.

[This story was originally published by | The Times-Picayune.]