Explainer: Creating Trauma-Informed Schools

Bill seeks to expand trauma-informed practices

More and more, the traumatic experiences of students are impacting every aspect of education. Many of our students are coping with issues that make it deeply challenging to focus on academics. Oftentimes, these issues arise from experiences that can harm a child’s emotional and physical development and are identified as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Common ACEs include poverty; separation from a parent by incarceration, death, or divorce; neglect; violence in one’s home or community; the mental illness of a parent; and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. All of these are examples of the kinds of trauma that students and educators may be trying to manage when students come to school. Such stress impacts the ability of students to function in school, affects the school community’s ability to establish and maintain a healthy school climate, and has long-term effects on the child.

In 2014, MSDE banned the controversial zero tolerance policy, consequently raising the bar on suspending or expelling students. A reconsideration about discipline had to follow. Since then, trauma-sensitive schools, social-emotional learning curricula, and restorative practices have replaced a more punitive policy with a more comprehensive approach, where educators, school psychologists, and administrators are focused on what’s behind a child’s behavior.

That’s why House Bill 277 is so important: It would create the Trauma-Informed Schools Initiative in the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). This initiative would establish trauma-informed training and programs at three schools in three different school systems to address trauma-related struggles that students and educators experience, which have an adverse impact on school climate, teacher effectiveness, and student success.

How We Got Here

The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, conducted between 1995–1997, looked at the long-term effects that childhood abuse and neglect had on the health and well-being of patients. ACEs were categorized into three groups: abuse, neglect, and family/household challenges. The study found long-term negative health outcomes in people who experienced ACEs, and the more ACEs a person had, the more negative life outcomes they experienced.

With increasing numbers of children in Maryland coming from backgrounds of poverty — 45% statewide — the level of trauma and students with ACEs in our schools is perilously high. Since 2003 (the first year of the current school funding formula’s implementation), there has been a marked increase in the free and reduced-price meals (FARMs) rate of Maryland students: a 59% increase in students receiving free meals and a 40% increase in students receiving free or reduced-price meals.

What We Can Do

Trauma-informed practices attempt to thoroughly address student poverty and its often traumatic consequences, through specific, research-backed programs supported by educators. MSEA and its members are leading the way in pushing for trauma-informed practices to be embedded through policies, regulations, and laws. These methods also can address the root causes of discipline issues arising in schools.

Former Prince George’s County school psychologist Robert Hull researched and developed effective training in trauma-informed education and influenced the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future to incorporate funding for trauma-informed schools. The need is especially great at high-poverty community schools, where more families experience the traumas of poverty.

In 2016, Baltimore City received a $2.4 million grant from the US Department of Education to promote trauma-responsive practices in 13 schools and to provide training on trauma-informed practices to almost 4,500 school staff in the district. Frederick County has trained in and implemented practices based on Hull’s program.

What This Legislation Does

HB 277 will expand the use of the trauma-informed approach used in schools and intensively train schools to become trauma-informed. The bill also requires MSDE to develop a website on the trauma-informed approach and to select three schools — one urban, one rural, and one suburban — to receive intensive training on the trauma-informed approach. First-year funding, starting in July 2020, is estimated at $407,000, and in subsequent years through 2025 at approximately $355,000. The cost includes hiring and retaining one education program specialist to administer the program and one-time costs for startup and website design expenses.

HB 277 also requires the State Board of Education to establish guidelines that define a state code of discipline for all public schools with standards of conduct and consequences for violations of the standards. These guidelines were last updated in 2014. The State Board must, upon request, provide technical assistance and training to local school boards on the use of restorative practices and assist each local school board with implementing the guidelines.

The bill also directs each local school board to adopt regulations designed to create and maintain within schools the atmosphere of order and discipline necessary for effective learning. The local regulations must state that the primary purpose of any disciplinary measure is rehabilitative, restorative, and educational. They must also provide for educational and behavioral interventions, restorative approaches, counseling, student and parent conferencing, and alternative programs.

The urgency of developing trauma-sensitive policies and programs has never been greater. As the Blueprint puts in place long-term solutions to address the levels of trauma in schools, HB 277 would help to scale up immediately meaningful reforms to deal with the complex, challenging, and inter-related issues of student trauma and student behavior.