Reporters find trauma helps explain challenges facing students in New Orleans in a whole new way

Published on
April 26, 2017

There are some stories that are so big, so persistent, so deeply ingrained in the narrative of a place that, over time, they cease to be thought of as “news.” Often these are stories of social ills and injustices. In Louisiana, we face a number of such topics. Over-incarceration: Louisiana, by some measures, puts more people in jail than anywhere else on earth. Deep poverty, with an overall poverty rate much higher than the national average and a child poverty rate at nearly 40 percent. Violent crime, with New Orleans consistently ranking among the top three cities for murder in the U.S.

Overlay onto those statistics another big story: New Orleans public schools. If you know anything about New Orleans education, you likely know almost all the schools closed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and re-opened as charter schools. The reformers aimed to set more children on a path to college, and out of poverty. Schools also set high academic expectations alongside a mandate to improve school performance scores, fast. New Orleans has become a proving ground to show that charter schools work, and New Orleans children are the means by which the proof is to be delivered.

We had long wanted to get our arms around how these big themes intersect. Given that many New Orleans children come from tough backgrounds — a parent in jail, unstable housing or not enough food, living amidst violence — and given that these children are in a new school system that’s pushing hard to fast-track achievement, we wondered: Is there something at odds there?

If so, where might we see the consequences?

A new lens from health reporting provided the answer.

Our newsroom at WWNO New Orleans Public Radio does not have a health reporter on staff. In fact, insofar as we know, there is no full-time reporter devoted to covering health in the entire city of New Orleans, at any media outlet. (For a city with much higher than average rates of obesity, AIDS, food insecurity and other sobering health statistics, that lack of health reporting is itself a story.)

By talking to youth health advocates and child welfare organizations, we found a health lens to tell the story we’d struggled to tell. Trauma is the word that unlocked the framework we needed. We found a gap between the mental and behavioral health needs of the city’s children, and the school system’s punishment-based, “no excuses” model for academic performance.

Many charter schools started up with strict rules about everything, from how students should sit at their desks (backs straight, hands folded, eyes tracking the speaker) to how they should walk down the hallways (in silence, on a taped line). Students who broke these rules — or acted out in other ways — got punished. Some schools became infamous for their high suspension rates.

Trauma is the word that unlocked the framework we needed. We found a gap between the mental and behavioral health needs of the city’s children, and the school system’s punishment-based, “no excuses” model for academic performance.

In a decentralized school system, there were for many years students who left one school, and never enrolled in another. A court ruled in favor of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which found this kind of school “push out” led to illegal levels of harm for children, particularly those with disabilities and special needs.

Some insist that rigid discipline creates calm, safe classrooms and keeps learning on track.  But around the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, some of the staunchest defenders of “no-excuses” discipline began to publicly question their approach, to acknowledge that they couldn’t punish students into learning. We found one charter school leader who said he had a charge of heart around his school’s strict discipline approach, and indeed one school run by the organization became the focus of our reporting. It was Crocker Elementary, where a staff social worker, principal and school deans were in the second year of seeking to become a “trauma-informed” school.

Trauma, alongside the toxic stress levels of children living in poverty, cause students to react to daily pressures of school differently than otherwise healthy students. Trauma and toxic stress are the reasons schools may see the same students getting in trouble over and over again, without improving, and even dragging down the learning of other students. Paulette Carter of the Children’s Bureau of New Orleans provided the health expertise to explain how children’s brains are shaped by trauma and toxic stress, putting them in a sort of permanent survival mode.

Students who’ve been exposed to trauma, or live with toxic stress, she says, may respond to small confrontations or setbacks in an outsized way – causing disruptions that trigger school discipline like detention or suspension. These punitive measures are not effective, because the underlying cause of the behavior — trauma — never gets addressed. Carter and a small team of experts have been training educators in half a dozen New Orleans schools to recognize behaviors as possible symptoms of trauma, and develop more effective responses.

New Orleans children show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder at more than three times the national average, at rates more often found among combat veterans. That’s according to the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, whose leader Dr. Denese Shervington was a major resource for our reporting.

The Center for Health Journalism 2016 National Fellowship allowed us to approach the topic of school discipline through a health lens, to help frame the disconnect between health needs and school policies. And because health was the root of the disconnect, health education also offered us a solution to explore. What do students who’ve experienced trauma need from school? Our reporting became a window on how health research get translated and applied to different environments — in this case, research on trauma and the brain being incorporated into lesson plans, school staffing, and use of school space.

Our research and interviews with experts were interwoven with many reporting days at Crocker Elementary to see its trauma-informed practices in action. There we saw, as just one example, a teacher send a fifth-grader to the “Peace Corner” in her classroom. He had been having a hard time paying attention. In the Peace Corner, he could use crayons to color a picture, squeeze Play-Doh, or sit on a bean bag for a few minutes. Then he could re-join his class. In the past, this student might have been sent out to see the principal, or otherwise punished for his disruption of the lesson plan. With a trauma-informed approach, the goal is to give him a few minutes to reset, and see if that allows him to get back on track with learning. The Peace Corner is a tool to do that.

We were not just watching a teacher do a “nice” thing. In our roles as Center for Health Journalism fellows, we understood this to be brain research translated into classroom practice, with a goal of better health and academic outcomes for New Orleans’ children. Through the lens of education reporting alone, we would not have fully understood what we were seeing. We would not have been able to imagine, much less describe, what it looks like for a teacher to understand that a student’s behavior might stem from his exposure to trauma, and to change her own behavior to help him address that, giving him a better chance at learning.

Read Eve Troeh and Mallory Falk's fellowship stories here.