With new proposal, trauma-informed care could become standard in Pa. schools

State Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh.

State Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh.

If a pair of powerful Pennsylvania state senators get their way, a burgeoning approach to managing student behavior could become a mandate.

State Sens. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, and Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, announced a proposal last week to create a “trauma-informed system of education.” The central plank of their proposal is a requirement that all teachers, school board members, and school employees “with direct contact with students” receive trauma-informed training.

The details don’t go much further than that, and the proposal hasn’t been turned into a bill yet.

The plan figures to have legs, though, based on the politicians promoting it.

Browne and Hughes co-chair the Senate’s Appropriations Committee. In the last legislative term, their school safety bill enabled the creation of a new $60 million fund for school safety upgrades. Plus, they have the ideological wind at their back. A 2017 review by the National Conference of State Legislators found a spike nationwide in legislation related to trauma-informed care.

This latest proposal represents another evolution in Pennsylvania’s approach to school safety, an issue pushed into the spotlight following a pair of deadly school shootings earlier this year. Although much of the debate since then has revolved around whether districts should allow some teachers to carry guns in school, there’s also been bipartisan momentum around the need to focus more on behavioral health.

Trauma-informed care sits squarely in the middle of that conversation.

In broad strokes, the model asks teachers and staff to change the way they approach student misbehavior.  Instead of reflexively punishing or scolding students, teachers in a trauma-informed school would try to find the root of the misbehavior and use that knowledge to deescalate the situation.

“We can give him a bottle of water and put our hand on his back and ask him not, what’s wrong with you, but what happened,” said Temple University researcher Kathy Reeves, an expert on trauma-informed care, in testimony last Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee in Philadelphia.

Researchers who back the method say students often act out because of what the field calls “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” known commonly as ACEs. Those experiences include abuse, neglect, discrimination, violence, the death of a family member, and more. The accumulation of these adverse experiences, researchers say, can hinder the function of a growing brain and ultimately lead to the kind of irritability or impulse control that causes kids to act out.

It’s important for teachers to understand the relationship between trauma and behavior, these experts say, and then to respond in ways that reflect this understanding. Over time, experts and state leaders hope, this approach can heal students who might otherwise commit violence.

“No matter how many locks we put on the doors. No matter how much bulletproof glass we put in them. We are never going to have safe schools until we have trauma-informed schools,” Reeves told the committee.

Reeves and her colleagues seem to have the attention of both parties.

In a statement after the release of his proposal, Browne said it was “critical to hear from educators, experts and individuals with direct knowledge of how trauma affects a student’s ability to learn.”

Hughes called the trauma-informed approach a “no-brainer.”

This model, though, will cost money — a question for lawmakers to debate in the coming months.

“Let nobody think you can do this on the cheap and have certain results,” Hughes said.

Some of the $60 million Pennsylvania designated earlier this year for school safety could go toward trauma-informed approaches to education, which was one of 22 categories listed among potential uses for the money.

At the time the bill passed, some school discipline advocates worried much of the money would go toward school police and other security measures. The result, they feared, would be a heavy-handed crackdown on student behavior. But the legislation itself is open-ended, leaving school districts to decide what to prioritize. The wide range of possibilities includes dollars for surveillance cameras, diversion programs, counselors, school police, research-based violence prevention programs, and even trained dogs.

In the William Penn School District, in Delaware County, Superintendent Jane Harbert already requires teachers to receive some exposure to trauma-informed practices. She’d like to expand those efforts by having a counselor in every elementary school. Right now, the cash-strapped district can only afford one for every two schools.

“We can’t say to [the students], excuse me, can you schedule your breakdown for tomorrow because the counselor will be here tomorrow,” Harbert said.

The tiny Moshannon Valley School District, located in rural Clearfield County, is a world away from William Penn, but Superintendent John Zesiger has a similar focus. Given the large size and population sparsity of his district, Zesiger worries his students won’t receive mental health treatment if the school can’t provide it.

“Having the ability to have those supports be school-based is very interesting to us as a district,” he said. “It’s an attempt to address issues or potential issues really even before they become issues.”

The West Chester Area School District, on the outskirts of the Philadelphia suburbs, hopes state grant money can help offset the cost of recently hired mental health specialists. The specialists had already been a mainstay in high schools, but the district recently added them to district middle schools as well.

“We noticed that these symptoms and these signs, they’re coming earlier and earlier,” said Superintendent Jim Scanlon.

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