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School Climate and Trauma-Informed Education and the School as the Perpetrator of Trauma

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

School Climate and Trauma-Informed Education practices should work together to assist the needs of all students. Section 1 will discuss school climate and the impact of school environments; Section 2 will define traumatic events and the role of Trauma-Informed Education; Section 3 will include a first-person narrative explaining educators' role in disrupting the school as an incubator of trauma. In Black and Brown communities, schools must acknowledge schools' role and history as incubators of trauma. A school climate that does not recognize the levels of harm that have systemically occurred across generations will be unable to move forward to assist the most marginalized. Only in the moment of acknowledgment can the community begin to heal. The school must engage in real trauma-informed education practices that are both reflective and reflexive. A reflective and reflexive school examines its role in causing harm and begins implementation strategies to mitigate the school as traumatic.

The National School Climate Center (NSCC) defines school climate as "the quality and character of school life. School climate is based on patterns of students', parents' and school personnel's experiences of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationship, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures" (“School Climate,” 2020). A healthy school climate is a partnership between school leadership and all parties outlined by the NSCC to sustain a school that works for the local community. NSCC continues to explain that "A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributing and satisfying life in a democratic society" (“School Climate,” 2020). School climate is about nurturing the community, the student, and uplifting a democratic society. Historically the democratic process of the United States has inflicted and continues to inflict trauma on the lives of Black and Brown peoples. Students turn on the news today and see repeated examples of how the democratic process supports, uplifts, and provides justice for their white counterparts, such as the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) explains:

Traumatic events involve (1) experiencing a serious injury to oneself or witnessing a serious injury to or a death of someone else; (2) facing imminent threats of serious injury or death to oneself or others; or (3) experiencing a violation of personal physical integrity. (“Addressing Race and Trauma,” p. 2)

Black and Brown children who enter the school environment are continuously "experiencing a violation of personal physical integrity." The racist history of the United States has allowed school climate to repeatedly inflict trauma on Black and Brown children through whitewashing and forced assimilation practices in the curriculum. School districts have control over curriculum; how Black and Brown lives show up continues to be traumatic and not reflective of fostering a positive school climate for all students. The experiences of Black and Brown children should not show up in the curriculum only during Black or Latino History months or as slaves or migrant workers. When teaching Black and Brown students' history, it is paramount that school systems also acknowledge schools' role as the incubators of injustice. Black students must learn that during slavery, it was illegal for Black people to learn to read or write and become educated. Black students must learn that during Reconstruction, Black people had to educate themselves. Black children must be taught that the fight for desegregated education was not about inclusion among white society but access to better resources due to a previous legislative ruling. For example, Plessy vs. Ferguson allowed Black students to have resources, not the most up to date materials. Black and Brown students must learn about their people's deculturization and the forced assimilation of children to be deemed acceptable in mainstream society. Until the school system is willing to teach and acknowledge the role schools play in Black and Brown children's generational trauma in the K-12 setting, a school can never truly foster a positive school climatic that utilizes trauma-informed education. The school environment will continue to inflict historical and racial trauma on the students of the community.

Trauma-Informed education practices teach teachers and school systems on how to be prepared for external causes of trauma. To reinforce, the purpose of this paper is not to say that external trauma is not relevant and that educators should not prepare themselves to address this type of trauma. However, schools must acknowledge its role as incubators of trauma to begin healing generational and systemic inequities. The idea of healing generational inequities is more probable than that of systemic inequality, but it is the first step in fostering a real school climate inclusive of all students. NCTSN has outlined ten steps called the Essential Elements of a Trauma-Informed School System, which outline the steps to assist students in dealing with trauma. They are:

1. Identifying and assessing traumatic stress; 2. addressing and treating traumatic stress; 3. teaching trauma education and awareness; 4. having partnerships with students and families; 5. creating a trauma-informed learning environment (social/emotional skills and wellness; 6. being culturally responsive; 7. integrating emergency management & crisis response; 8. understanding and addressing staff self-care and secondary traumatic stress; 9. evaluating and revising school discipline policies and practices; and 10. collaborating across systems and establishing community partnerships (Peterson, 2018, Essential Elements section).

Just as procedural measures exist to identify trauma in students', schools must use the same lens to examine its curriculum, school climate, and culture to assess itself. In self-assessment, a school community can flag the need for curriculum development, bias training, and address environmental traumas in real-time. As a school becomes more aware of its role as a trauma incubator, it frees the school to begin educating versus responding and being reactive to environmental trauma and places the school in the position of empowerment.

The purpose of trauma-informed education is to assist the most marginalized and often neglected students in schools. As I think about my own experiences in the classroom, I realize my students thrive when I acknowledge the elephant in the room. I create spaces in which it was safe for students to not only question but to engage in work that set them on the course of "contributing and having a satisfying life in a democratic society." The students who experience the most out of school trauma sought to be members of both my classroom and advisory as I taught from a place of acknowledgment and transparency. In teaching any social studies lesson, I challenged my students to question the teacher's material, motivations, and information. I taught three young men, whom others saw as unmotivated, and the administration sought to push out as their external traumas were showing in every classroom environment but mine. I thought the solution to the problem was a simple one. The decision I made was first to speak with my students about what was different in my classroom environment. First, I acknowledged the lived trauma in which my students were dealing with outside of school. Secondly, I was transparent in explaining policy and curriculum that perpetuated traumatic experiences for my students; by doing so, students are allowed the space to react and analyze their education and school role in that process in my classroom. As schools think about their school climate and trauma-informed education, the school must see itself as not just a haven, resource, or "savior" to assist students. As outlined in the introduction, educational leaders must reflect on how trauma exists within the school building and system. The next step requires reflexive strategic planning to address inequities, unintentional biases, and programming, which continue to be traumatic for Black and Brown children.

In many cases, the school serves as an environment where students are first assessed and may have access to resources that assist in their lives outside of school. Black and Brown children have been and continue to be traumatized by school environments that do not represent them in the curriculum. When they are, it remains in a capacity in which students experience a violation of personal physical integrity consistently. Black and Brown students with severe mental health issues become lost in a system that never valued their identity nor acknowledged its role as a continual perpetrator of trauma. Students receive blame for school-inflicted trauma. Schools receive training to assess student trauma; schools must take a hard look inward to create the academic environments we read about to help develop young people.


*Peterson, S. (2018, February). Essential Elements. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

*Addressing Race and Trauma in the Classroom: A Resource for Educators. (n.d.).

*School Climate - National School Climate Center. (2020). Schoolclimate.Org.

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