Mich. kids are going to school traumatized — and teachers lack training, resources to help

Former Free Press Columnist Rochelle Riley studied how trauma and toxic environments impact how children learn. She unravels this issue through the eyes of three children and their caregivers in Detroit, Romulus and Flint. And she offers some solutions to ensure that children are mentally prepared to learn. This special report was sponsored by a $75,000 Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship from Sigma Delta Chi. The award is given to “an outstanding editorial writer or columnist to help broaden his or her journalistic horizons and knowledge of the world” and can be used to cover the cost of study, research and/or travel that may result in editorials, writings or books.

One wintry Tuesday morning, as Tavia Redmond welcomed her third-grade students to class, she asked young Michael why he had missed school the day before.

“He told me that the reason he wasn’t here was because he was dead,” she recalled.

“I said, ‘Well, you couldn’t have been dead and be back today.’ He said: ‘I was dead. I died over the weekend.’ ”

Later, Redmond learned that Michael’s older brother had tried to kill himself — again.

And Michael had witnessed it. Again.

Then it was time for reading corner.

Millions of teachers, more than 80,000 in Michigan, also face the same challenge as Redmond, who teaches in the Romulus Community Schools — teaching traumatized children without being trained for it.

Thousands of children across Michigan have suffered adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and, or, the trauma of living in toxic or violent homes, neighborhoods or cities. The state of Michigan has no formal programs to teach teachers how to handle children in such pain. It also does not provide special funding or programs to deal with the growing challenge.

Behind every violent story, every murder, every massive car wreck, every case of physical or sexual abuse, every parent taken by cancer or a bullet, every broken home,  there is a child whose life has been disrupted.

“At 8 o’clock on Tuesday morning, I saw one of my students,” recalled Michelle Davis, dean of climate, culture and community at Davis Aerospace Technical High School in Detroit. “I said, ‘Hey baby, where have you been? I’ve been missing you.’ She said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been gone for two weeks. I was in a hospital. I tried to kill myself.’ And that was at 8’o clock. By 3 o’clock, I was sitting at my desk crying.

“My circle of concern is huge. But my circle of resources and what I can do … is minuscule.”

When children are traumatized, the pain disrupts their learning; it affects how they handle reading, writing and arithmetic. And the problem is more pronounced in urban, predominantly black school districts because black children are more likely to suffer from multiple adverse experiences, experts say.

“Our students come to us with so many challenges — things that we can’t even begin to fathom,” said Donise Floyd, director of the Romulus district’s special education department. Most of us have lived very sheltered lives or come from a different background. And our students are not so lucky, so many of them come to us with some things that many of us would only see on the news.”

Of the 2,600 students in the Romulus schools, Michael’s school district, 400 have individual education plans, or IEPs, for special education services. Of those 400, about a third should not be in special education, Floyd said.

But there are no other options for students who have suffered trauma.

In many cases, school districts’ answer to child trauma is to place children in special education classes, or to suspend them when their pain-induced behavior becomes intolerable.

  • In Flint, one child was suspended or went home from school nearly 50 times. His mother contends that his behavior was a result of drinking lead-poisoned water for years.
  • In Detroit, where one in 14 children experienced violence personally, according to a 2015 study, and there are no formal programs to help. Dr. Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the 51,000-student Detroit Public Schools Community District, plans to change that. But it is an uphill battle since the state has no uniform policy or designated funding for trauma.
  • And in Romulus, school officials are experimenting with a program to help traumatized students because many are in special education even though they have no learning disability.

The children I met in three Michigan cities while working on this project, are not broken children. They are little people whose lives have been cracked or damaged. And if they are left untreated, the damage will most certainly impede their learning.

Michael arrived in Tavia Redmond’s classroom at Wick Elementary exhibiting behavior that was unacceptable. But she didn’t know his pain.

“Day one — I didn’t really have a lot of background knowledge on what I was getting,” she said. “They told me I had a new student, and he was going to be getting special services, and he was in foster care. And I said, ‘OK.’

“He came in the first day. I sat him down in his seat, and I introduced him to the class. No eye contact was given. He wouldn’t even acknowledge me. He just sat. And he would blurt out lots of things. So, I said, ‘OK. I don’t know how to understand this one yet. I don’t know where my voice level is going to go with him.’ ”

Read the full story on the Detroit Free Press website.