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Jo Carrigan is principal of Denver Public Schools' Doull Elementary School in Harvey Park. Photo by Chet Strange

Can Denver Public Schools Help Kids Experiencing Trauma?

How one local school is nurturing students who’ve experienced childhood trauma—and how the rest of Denver Public Schools is attempting to follow suit.

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On a frigid morning this past March, Jo Carrigan, principal of Denver Public Schools’ Doull Elementary School in Harvey Park, stood on a blacktop playground as students streamed into the red brick building. As evidenced by the elaborate hairstyles, shimmery party dresses, and clip-on ties, it was school picture day. Carrigan complimented students on their outfits as she guided them around an icy spot on the pavement. Inside the building, up a flight of stairs, two more staff members greeted the throngs, offering singsongy “good mornings” and warm “hellos.”

While the welcoming committee might seem organic, the ritual is actually carefully orchestrated. Carrigan and her staff strive to ensure that each child at Doull has positive interactions with multiple adults at the school every day. Common sense would suggest that this should be an unwritten rule at every place of learning; however, it is particularly integral here, because five years ago the K–5 school successfully began implementing what’s now known in education circles as a “trauma-informed” initiative.

Education is full of buzzwords, but trauma-informed care isn’t specific to the education sector. Child welfare agencies, the justice system, and health care providers have long understood the merits of recognizing and responding to the impacts of trauma in children’s lives. As awareness of the effects of childhood trauma on the brain has grown, schools around the country have begun fundamentally changing the ways they teach, discipline, and interact with children and their families. The goal of these programs is to provide children who have been affected by painful experiences outside of school walls—and who, as a result, often struggle with learning and exhibit behavioral issues—the support they need to overcome their adversities.

In 2017, about three years after Carrigan made trauma sensitivity her mission at Doull, the Board of Education of Denver Public Schools passed a trauma-informed school district resolution, laying out a number of steps the district should take to become more sensitive to the needs of certain students. Then last fall, Jim and Janice Campbell—a Denver couple interested in supporting K–12 education in the city through their Campbell Foundation—gave a $1 million grant to DPS through the DPS Foundation, the district’s strategic fundraising partner, to bankroll the trauma-informed transformation. So far, the district has used the outlay to hire four experts to provide in-school training on trauma to DPS staff; the district also hosted a conference in August to give school psychologists and social workers extra training in trauma sensitivity. The question, of course, isn’t whether the initiative is well-intentioned, but whether or not the district can replicate some of Doull’s favorable outcomes across 207 schools.

Over the past several decades, researchers have amassed a large body of evidence demonstrating that damage inflicted by severe misfortune in childhood can have consequences that people may not realize. The effects of those ills—which can include everything from malnutrition to a lack of crucial social-emotional inputs to extreme poverty to traumatic events—don’t wait until adulthood to begin wreaking havoc.

Scientists now know that stressful events provoke a fight, flight, or freeze response in the body, characterized by the release of powerful hormones and rapid physiological changes. This acute stress response is, at its most basic, a survival mechanism that enables a person to react quickly to a life-threatening situation; however, repetitive triggering of this state of hyperarousal can wear on the body. “If you’re experiencing, say, abuse in your home, you’re activating this response very frequently,” says Sarah Enos Watamura, a psychology professor at the University of Denver and the co-director of the institution’s Stress Early Experience & Development Research Center. “And it can take a toll.” In fact, some researchers have found that exposure to this “toxic stress” in childhood increases one’s risk for developing mental health problems, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, obesity, and diabetes. Toxic stress and childhood trauma can also affect cognitive functioning and children’s abilities to learn.

Mental health professionals often describe children exposed to toxic stress as having a “dysregulated stress response,” which means they have poorly moderated emotional reactions. Watamura says the simplest way to understand these effects is to recognize that these kids are focused on survival. At home, they may expect physical abuse at any moment or feel uncertain about when they might have their next meal. In the classroom, this laserlike fixation on survival may translate into kids who struggle to pay attention or who shrink into the background to avoid attention or who are hypervigilant and prone to responding explosively to seemingly minor triggers. As such, researchers have found that experiencing trauma strongly correlates with poor academic outcomes and behavioral problems in school. “The brain is more attuned to sources of potential threat, even if those things are actually neutral,” Watamura says. “And it’s difficult to attune to things of which it’s unclear what the relevance might be for your immediate survival. Algebra—it’s going to be harder to attend to that.”

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As bleak as the literature on trauma is, there’s a demonstrable silver lining: Kids who have access to a stable, caring adult can recover. This well-researched and well-documented phenomenon is the stuff movies—The Blind Side, Precious—are made of. The formula is simple: A doting teacher or a tough-love coach takes an interest in a neglected kid, and that kid ultimately blossoms and succeeds. In real life, the transformation may not tuck neatly into a narrative arc fit for cinema, but the results can be similar. Says Watamura, “If the child can identify an adult who is consistently available to them, that’s basically the most powerful resource for mitigating the effects of trauma.”

Alicia Allen wanted to be the reliable adult in her kids’ lives. But staring at the electricity bill in front of her, she believed she had failed them. It was late winter 2016, and 28-year-old Allen wasn’t sure how she was going to keep the heat on. Several months pregnant with her fifth child, Allen had just split from the baby’s father, and money was tight. Allen, who was living in an apartment near Doull Elementary, didn’t have enough cash to make the payment. She was panicked.

Then the phone rang. It was Jane Graham, a teacher at Doull, where Allen’s three oldest children were attending second, third, and fourth grades. Allen’s son, seven-year-old David, had told his teacher about the family’s financial struggles. Graham had just one question: Did Allen need help?

Alicia Allen needed assistance and found it at Doull Elementary. Photo by Chet Strange

With roughly 94 percent of Doull’s students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, Allen’s situation was not unfamiliar to the school’s staff. The school’s response—several staff members came up with the money to cover the bill—was, however, very unfamiliar to Allen. “I never would have thought they could help,” Allen says. “I never would have asked.”

The support Doull provided Allen and her family didn’t stop with a utility bill, though. After Allen was evicted later that year, Carla Graeber, the trauma-sensitivity-trained psychologist at Doull, drove a donated Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas gifts for the kids to the homeless shelter where the family was living. When David came out as transgender, Graeber provided therapy. When Allen’s daughter Anaya started acting out—sometimes running away from school grounds—the school helped Allen identify the source of her daughter’s behavior. Almost all of Allen’s children have attended therapy with Graeber—treatment Allen says they wouldn’t have received otherwise.

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The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI)—a Massachusetts-based legal and advocacy project that focuses on trauma-informed education—defines a trauma-sensitive school as one in which “all students feel safe, welcomed and supported, and where addressing trauma’s impact on learning on a school-wide basis is at the center of its educational mission.” How schools achieve that objective can vary widely, but disciplinary procedures are almost always examined. In lieu of traditional models, schools sensitive to adverse childhood experiences often focus on preventing behavioral issues by providing students with the skills they need to regulate their emotions. Doull, for example, had previously used charts to monitor behavior; kids who misbehaved often lost recess or were placed in after-school detention. Today, there are no charts, children are rarely deprived of recess, and detention has been replaced by yoga classes. “Zero-tolerance policies don’t work well in a trauma-sensitive context,” says Marissa del Rosario, the project coordinator at TLPI. “What’s healing or ameliorating for trauma is connection…if we’re in the habit of sending students out of the classroom, does that foster connection?”

At Doull, the answer is no. For students who are really struggling, administrators might provide scheduled check-ins with several adults throughout the day; extra breaks to allow children to self-regulate by hanging out in an activity-focused sensory room; and a “cool-down card” a child can flash at her teacher if she wants to leave the classroom to use a cool-down room to reset and speak to the psychologist, if need be. Using a $100,000 grant it received from DPS in 2017, Doull has also hired additional mental-health-focused staff and instituted a mindfulness program, in which teachers lead students in “mindful moments” several times a day.

Marisol Ortiz teaches first grade in an English Language Acquisition classroom at Doull. She says the mindful moments—brief in-class meditations led by a teacher or the school’s mindfulness coach—are worth the time investment, even in a day jam-packed with lessons. Ortiz, like other teachers at Doull, has also amplified her efforts to connect with children and their families. She conducts home visits and uses an app that allows her to text with parents, checking in on issues at home that may be affecting students. “My hope for my students is that they can come here and know that someone—a lot of people, actually—loves them,” Ortiz says. “I want them to know they can come to me and tell me what’s going on in their lives.”

Doull’s “cool-down cards” allow kids to alert teachers about their emotions. Photo by Chet Strange

One million dollars is a big chunk of change, but the task before Denver Public Schools is daunting. The Campbell Foundation grant means all DPS educators will receive basic training in trauma by the end of the 2020-’21 school year. And in the coming years, the district says it will provide additional education and support to those who work with DPS’ highest-need students and further review its disciplinary and student safety processes. However, recent events suggest there is plenty of work to be done right now.

In 2018, a nine-year-old LGBT student named Jamel Myles died by suicide. Myles’ family says the child’s school—DPS’ Shoemaker Elementary School—failed to adequately respond to alleged bullying and put too much pressure on Jamel to care for his older sister, who was one grade level ahead of Jamel and struggled emotionally. The district also faced criticism this past spring after several families said their elementary-school-age children were handcuffed repeatedly at school. Meanwhile, sources of trauma outside schoolhouse doors persist and have, in some cases, grown more acute in the Mile High City: Educators say both gentrification and federal immigration policies playing out locally can place new financial and emotional stress on DPS families. “It’s not an overnight solution,” says Jay Grimm, DPS’ director of student equity and opportunity. “We know that a single training or three trainings is not enough to change the whole school culture; that’s why this is a three-year grant. The way we see it is, this is the mindset shift we need our adults in the building to have, and then we’re teaching them the skills to better address behavior and social-emotional needs.”

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The extent to which each DPS school transforms itself to address these challenges will depend largely on the engagement of principals and staff in each building. Doull’s Carrigan has, over her tenure, intentionally assembled a team of educators dedicated to trauma sensitivity. During job interviews, Carrigan asks prospective teachers to talk about a student whose life they have changed and gravitates toward candidates who can easily answer that question. Furthermore, Carrigan is reluctant to hire teachers who don’t want to do home visits. Cognizant of the high toll days spent educating and caring for challenging children can take, the principal also emphasizes regular mental health care for her teachers. But the elements that have made Doull a case study in trauma-informed learning will not be easily replicated at every DPS school. “If you don’t have administrators who are ready to walk the walk and talk the talk and do the learning with staff,” Carrigan says, “I think it is tremendously hard to have buy-in.”

Rachele Espiritu, a research psychologist and former DPS board member who introduced the trauma-informed resolution in 2017, says the next step in the district’s journey is to make sure every institution does indeed make the necessary changes, regardless of whether they have a leader like Carrigan. “We’re a very school-driven district, but I think there are certain crucial ingredients that we should have across every single school,” Espiritu says. “The resolution doesn’t feel district-wide yet.” It’s clear the district is aware buy-in could be an issue, which is why DPS is bringing in trauma experts to conduct assessments at each school, identifying strengths and weaknesses and creating customized recommendations for change.

Still, that inconsistency between schools is, in part, why Alicia Allen, who now lives in Five Points, drives her children an hour each way so they can continue to attend Doull. She doesn’t know how her family would have made it through the worst year of her life without help from Carrigan and company. “I have relatives at other schools—they’re not like Doull,” Allen says. “When kids are in need, they just help them.”

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