It Is Time for a Change, When Schools traumatize Kids


How we respond to young people when they make us mad can make or break them, emotionally and physically. Notwithstanding the studies showing genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism and other traits, we enter this world with a blank slate.

We are born with great potential to do wonderful things and experience that happiness as referenced in the Declaration of Independence. Despite our inalienable right to pursue happiness, this pursuit is thwarted for many children and young people who are traumatized at the hands of their parents or caretakers through abuse, neglect, violence and other toxic stressors. The blank slate brought into the world gets filled with some pretty ugly scribbling that makes it difficult for the rest of us to understand, including the child.

When children experience complex trauma -- violence, hurt, neglect, stress caused by a caretaker -- the brain gets re-wired. Dr. Julian Ford, a leading researcher of childhood trauma as a pathway to delinquency, describes the affect of traumatization on a child as "Dis-empowerment"-- or an "automatic shift from a brain/body that is fully able to experience what is important in life to being in survival mode."

When this occurs, the brain and personality may be disrupted and in turn the child's ability to resolve stressful situations can be compromised.  This dis-empowering event or events alters the child's brain to where ordinary stress becomes a struggle to survive -- it triggers an alarm in the brain that won't turn off!

Children suffering "dis-empowerment" may "cope by resorting to indifference, defiance, or aggression as self-protective reactions." When this occurs, children usually exhibit risk-taking behaviors including rule breaking, fighting back and hurting others. And this, says Dr. Ford, is the pathway to delinquency.

There is growing research into childhood trauma in the traditional sense of parental or caretaker abuse and neglect as well as serious life stressors such as witnessing violence, experiencing the death of a caretaker, or the separation of parents.

But I ask to what extent our school systems -- with the aid of police and the courts -- have caused the "dis-empowerment" of children and consequently compromise their pursuit of happiness?

We have a compulsory school attendance law mandating children attend school. We make them leave their homes and spend most of their waking hours under a roof with hundreds of other kids. When we send our kids to school, the school exercises control over them using the doctrine of "in loco parentis" - -a Latin phrase meaning "In the place of a parent." Lets face it, school administrators and teachers are caretakers. They are acting in the place of a parent to do what's in the best interest of the child.

In our current era of zero tolerance laws and policies to punish students with suspension, expulsion, and arrest, schools, in their role as a parent, overreact in many circumstances that can traumatize those they are obliged to protect?

I am not even referring to those students who have already experienced childhood trauma and enter our schools with existing vulnerabilities due to "dis-empowerment" and now re-traumatized with handcuffs, a ride in the back of a patrol car, the experience of booking procedures and maybe a jail cell.

Let's stick to the kids that did not experience childhood trauma -- the kids that are relatively healthy in an emotional sense, but sometimes get caught up in the juvenile version of the Jerry Springer Show. Let's not forget that kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things. They are under neurological construction and need positive surroundings and thoughtful and deliberative responses from their adult caretakers when they find themselves in stressful circumstances.

Last year, a deputy in our campus police program was called to a classroom to confront a disruptive student. The child got upset at a teacher's directive and went off. In the old days -- before we developed our school referral reduction protocol -- a complaint would have been filed with the court and maybe the child handcuffed. Instead, using crisis intervention skills, the deputy made inquiries and learned that the student did not have anything to eat in 24 hours. She took the student to the cafeteria, fed her, and the student was fine the rest of the day. A referral was made to social services to look into the matter.

In another school, a deputy was called to a classroom. This time it was a student throwing items and threatening to kill the teacher. The student had to be removed from the classroom immediately. Again, in the old days, she would have been handcuffed and transported to juvenile court intake -- no questions asked.  Afterall, she threatened to kill a teacher! Instead, the deputy isolated her, calmed her down, and using crisis intervention discovered that her mother’s live-in boyfriend was raping her. She was taken into protective custody -- not arrested --and her mother's boyfriend arrested instead.

What are we doing to kids when the adults wear zero tolerances glasses? Why can't we see the many missed opportunities to save kids from traumatic circumstances? Why do we insist on pursuing a policy that re-traumatizes traumatized kids and traumatize emotionally healthy kids?

Take for instance the recent case of the 8-year-old Georgia student who brought an unloaded gun to school in his backpack. The administrators admit that the child's intention was to show it off. There was no intent to hurt anyone. But our laws demand that this 8-year-old must be expelled from school for one year. The caretakers in his life -- the school -- is kicking him out of what is equivalent to his home away from home. The place that serves as the best protective buffer against delinquency --education and social development. Will this child be traumatized--"dis-empowered?"

I think many would be surprised to find how many campus police prefer Clayton County Georgia's model of Positive Student Engagement over arresting as a means of policing on campus. Myself and Lt. Francisco Romero of the Clayton County Police Department recently traveled to Broward County, Fla. to deliver training on this model. When all was said and done, a survey was taken of police on the question: "How many would favor a no arrest policy of nonviolent misdemeanants?" It was unanimous -- all campus police raised their hands!

I was overwhelmed when Major Miguel A. Martinez of the Hallandale Beach Police Department modified Maslow's quote of a "hammer" and "nail' to fit the campus police scenario -- "If the only tool is a cop--than every problem is a crime."

We cannot arrest our way out of every problem. It's not that simple!

We are capable of doing better for our children.

Published by

Judge Steven Teske

Steven Teske is the chief presiding judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Georgia, and also sits as a designated judge of the Superior Court in adult civil and criminal matters. He has been appointed by the governor to the Judicial Advisory Council for the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Juvenile Justice State Advisory Group, Commission on Criminal Justice Reform and the JDAI Statewide Steering Council, which he serves as its chair. He is ex-president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges and served two terms on the Federal Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice. He is former member of the Board of Directors of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and chaired its School Pathways Committee. He is the national chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and has testified before Congress numerous times on juvenile justice reform.

One thought on “It Is Time for a Change, When Schools traumatize Kids”

  1. This is not something that can be solved by throwing more money at central planning maleducation schemes like public education. In New Hampshire they currently receive over 16k a year per student. I would propose that students by their own parent’s choice receive a limited cost voucher to do their own individualized education. If more alternative educational choices were available better matching of educational approach could be achieved.

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