‘Decimated’ services for traumatized Chicago students to get federal funding

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A boy gazes at the hearse at 9-year-old murder victim Tyshawn Lee’s funeral at St. Sabina Church in Chicago on November 10, 2015.

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

A boy gazes at the hearse at 9-year-old murder victim Tyshawn Lee’s funeral at St. Sabina Church in Chicago on November 10, 2015.

As gun violence soars in Chicago, public schools have not been able to devote enough resources to basic counseling assistance — let alone to helping traumatized students.

A new $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will support more mental health services at 10 high schools on the South and West sides of the city, where students are at high risk of exposure to violence.

The federal grant — established in the wake of national unrest over police shootings of unarmed black men — also was awarded to school districts in Baltimore and St. Louis. The funding is meant to work in concert with another federal grant that supports cities, including Chicago, that are dealing with the aftermath of the turmoil.

The grant comes at a crucial time for Chicago Public Schools. In the grant application, officials said the district’s mental health services have been “decimated” by budget cuts. In making the case for funding, they also pointed to widespread protests following the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by a police officer, and the slaying of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee by gang members.

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“For some kids, they’re walking past traumatic reminders every day at school, or they’re sitting in a classroom where their friend used to be and their friend is dead,” said Colleen Cicchetti, executive director of the Center for Childhood Resilience at Lurie Children’s Hospital, which is partnering with CPS on the grant.

So far this year, 238 children age 16 and under were injured in shootings; 26 died of gun violence, according to the Chicago Tribune. That’s on pace to top last year, when 248 youths in this age group were shot and 27 died.

Meanwhile, the district has fewer social workers to help students cope with the deaths of their classmates.

Last school year, 323 social workers served more than 392,000 students, and many split time among multiple schools. That was down from 370 social workers about four years earlier — a drop much steeper than the overall enrollment decline. (Budget cuts are likely to worsen the slide this year.) Ways to free up counselors have been floated in the latest round of contract negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and CPS.

How trauma cripples students

Research shows that students who are exposed to violence and receive no treatment for trauma are more likely to suffer lower grades, poor school attendance, higher rates of suspension and expulsion, and lower graduation rates.

Untreated trauma can also re-emerge later in life. Youth traumatized by violence are more likely to attempt suicide and to suffer from chronic unemployment, depression, alcoholism and high stress.

When students are chronically exposed to stress, especially during the key developmental stages of early childhood and adolescence, their bodies can become conditioned to remain in a state of high alert, Cicchetti said.

Two months after Tyshawn Lee’s murder, there was a 10-point drop in the percentage of students who were on track to pass to the next grade at his Auburn Gresham elementary school, the grant application reported. School officials also cited the June shooting death of Denzel Thornton, a CPS nutrition services employee, outside an Austin elementary school when children were inside.

The district has yet to choose which schools will be part of the grant program, but its application identified 30 high-need high schools, mostly serving black and Latino students from the surrounding neighborhood. Many priority schools were located in Austin, Humboldt Park, Englewood, West Englewood, Roseland and New City.

Schools in proximity to shootings were given priority, as well as those with low scores on a district survey that measures areas such as school safety and emotional health. Also considered were truancy rates, the percentage of students on track to graduate on time, and high student-to-counselor ratios.

The plan also calls for about 300 parents, as well as 320 school staff members, to receive training in trauma and mental health over the two-year period of the grant. Approximately 900 high school students will participate in trauma-informed group therapy. Up to a third of those students will get free individualized counseling. Schools will also get at least one extra clinician from a community-based organization to provide trauma-focused interventions.

Each of the 10 selected high schools will form a behavioral health team that’s trained to spot students in need of services and refer them to the right interventions. The hope is that after the grant money runs out, these teams will continue to support students.

Though CPS officials say 300 to 400 schools have received some kind of training around social emotional learning that promotes trauma-informed care, services vary from school to school. In their grant application, district officials said only 25 schools — out of more than 650 — received specialized training to better screen and identify youth with symptoms of trauma.

A group therapy intervention for teens dealing with trauma that showed promise in a recent 16-school pilot will be used in the 10 high schools. But the training is time-intensive and costly, preventing many other schools and districts from taking it on, said Angel Knoverek, who has helped train CPS social workers and counselors on the group therapy.

But Knoverek, director of program consultation and evaluation for Chaddock, a child trauma residential treatment center in Quincy, Ill., says the therapy pays off. “I do find that once schools or other organizations make that commitment, they realize how it is worth it,” she said.

Some experts worry that the grant is only a short-term fix for a handful of schools, when many more need assistance.

“If we can’t really mitigate these traumatic situations, these kids are not going to succeed, no matter how well we teach,” said David Simpson, who directs counseling and clinical practice at Youth Guidance, a nonprofit that also is partnering with the district on the grant. “I think CPS really understands that. It’s just the resources may not be there … We ought to prioritize this, because we’re going to get a lot of mileage out of helping these kids remove some of these social and emotional barriers that trauma is causing.”