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Jacksonville Teachers Learn How To Reach Students Through Their Trauma

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Sydney Boles
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WJCT News

More than 1-in-4 students in Jacksonville schools has what’s considered a high level of trauma, according to state data. 

To help teachers address the symptoms of that trauma in their classrooms, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund is looking to build out a training program the district is piloting with a nonprofit organization called Hope Street. 

“Trauma causes emotional dysregulation and sensory dysfunction,” said Hope Street founder Callie Lackey. “Trauma impacts our ability to be alert, to be organized.” 

According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, 27% of Duval County students lived through four or more “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs  —  events like natural disasters, the loss of a parent, food insecurity, or witnessing a violent crime. 

Duval County students with at least four ACEs report higher rates of depression and substance abuse. The average “ACE score” for Duval County high school students is 2.3. 

At a Friday morning training session at the Cummer Museum, Hope Street’s Lackey taught dozens of DCPS educators about the “invisible backpack,” a way of understanding what might be underlying a child’s emotional outburst. 

The teacher might just see a child lashing out, Lackey said, or with their head down on their desk, sleeping or disengaged. 

But invisible forces might be making it difficult for the child to focus on the lesson: hunger, fatigue, dehydration, or deeper stressors like homelessness, grief or shock. 

“You need to become a curious detective,” Lackey said, to identify the source of a child’s behavior. 

Hope Street began working with Jacksonville Heights Elementary School this February. 

The Westside School is a Title 1 School, where the entire student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch because of high poverty rates in the area. 

Principal Andrea Williams Scott and 18 Jacksonville Heights teachers received the training in “trauma-informed care.” 

“Children communicate a lot with their bodies and their behaviors,” Williams Scott said. “So (we’re) actually slowing down, giving them safe spaces and allowing them to actually communicate and talk with us, and providing them and us with strategies to communicate more effectively to meet their needs.”

“I now understand better why students fight for control in the classroom,” said Jacksonville Heights second grade teacher Alethia Wheatle in a case study on the school’s program. “They are coming from environments where they are not given choices and where they have no control.” 

In Friday’s training session at the Cummer, several DCPS educators brought up power struggles they’d had in the classroom with students who refused to take off their hoodies. 

Williams Scott said before the trauma-informed training, teachers at her school had told students to take off their hoodies because they viewed it as disrespectful. But she learned that for some students, the heavy, bulky garments can provide a sense of security, acting as a barrier between their bodies and the rest of the world. 

“After looking at it through this lens, it’s moreso, ‘OK, if we meet their underlying needs, the hoodie will just come off sometimes.’ If it’s providing them with whatever comfort because of what’s going on in their life, but they’re still able to participate in the academic process, that’s what we want,” she said. 

The Jacksonville Heights pilot program was supported with funding from the Jacksonville Public Education Fund. Additional funding came from the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations, Florida Blue Foundation, and Mayo Clinic. 

JPEF President Rachel Tutwiler Fortune said she hopes to expand the trauma-informed care training to more DCPS schools. 

“When we think about our students who live in our underserved and sometimes very challenged communities, it’s really important that our school leaders and our teachers be equipped with the best practices in what it looks like to provide more holistic support for our students,” she said. 

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.