Schools should provide help for traumatized children

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On the surface, the two stories are unrelated: the appalling upsurge in shootings and homicides in Chicago this year and the Chicago Teachers Union’s announcement of plans for a strike authorization vote.

But look closer—there’s a connection. Union leaders want the district to negotiate on a host of issues, among them the lack of social workers and other mental health clinicians in schools. It’s a need that’s become more critical given this year’s upsurge in violence. By the first weekend in June, the murder tally for 2012 was more than 200, a 50 percent increase compared to the same period in 2011. Over 800 shooting incidents have been reported, compared to about 700 last year.

Clearly, violence is endemic in too many neighborhoods and, by extension, touches too many schools and leaves too many children traumatized. Is it reasonable to expect children to be attentive and eager to learn after they’ve heard about or seen violence, fatal or not?

Even adults feel edgy, unsettled and unfocused in the aftermath of shootings. When a shooting happens in my neighborhood, Woodlawn, half of my workday morning is taken up by discussing the details with a co-worker who lives nearby. Part of relieving the stress we feel is to share details we know or have heard—Was anyone killed? Where did it happen? Did you hear the gunshots? You know the situation is out of hand when you can discern and describe the difference between gunfire and firecrackers.

We have an outlet for our anxiety. But what about the schoolchildren who don’t?

Indeed, once the crime scene tape comes down, the media reports—if the shooting was sensational enough to make the news—are off the airwaves and the peace vigils and funerals are over, what’s left? Communities, including children, that must deal with the aftermath.

Ideally, schools would be a refuge in these cases, especially in poor communities that lack other institutions and social capital to provide support. But as the CTU and others have pointed out, schools do not have enough social workers and clinicians to meet schools’ mental health needs. The social workers that CPS provides—based on a school’s enrollment and the needs of special education students—instead spend most of their time managing special education cases. Each school has a counselor, but counselors have a host of duties that don’t include mental health support. Outside organizations provide counselors, but only to some schools.

Yet according to a survey by Communities in Schools of Chicago (CISC), mental health issues are more urgent than ever. The need for services to address the emotional and behavioral well-being of students ranked as a top priority among principals in the CISC network.

With the right training, teachers can provide in-class support for children to help them cope with the emotional after-effects of trauma. But the burden cannot, and should not, be on teachers. Society pays them to teach, not perform therapy. 

Yet the impact of trauma can easily lead to poor academic performance and a troubled school climate. Children who have lost a sibling, parent, friend or neighbor to violence are likely to act out and become angry in school or simply not pay attention in class. Teens who travel to high schools in rough neighborhoods can easily become “hyper-vigilant,” as one social worker puts it, against potential trouble. As a result, they are more likely to strike out at the slightest provocation, in the neighborhood or in the hallways at school.

Mental health programs and social-emotional supports, such as peace circles and therapy groups, can ultimately make it easier for teachers to teach and students to learn.

Barbara Shaw, head of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, applauds CPS for recognizing the potential impact of trauma and violence on children. The district has begun training social workers and counselors in research-based strategies to help children cope with trauma. But because these clinicians are already stretched thin, only about 13 percent of those who were trained have gotten therapy groups up and running.

The union is right to put clinicians on the negotiating agenda. Mental health needs must be part of the school improvement equation.

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