On February 10th the Binghamton University Institute for Multi-generational Studies hosted a stimulating evening of film and discussion on the topic of trauma-informed schools. An overflow crowd of more than 100 people from the Broome County community and faculty and students from Binghamton University gathered at the Downtown Center to watch Paper Tigers, a documentary by James Redford, about a year in the life of selected students, their families, teachers, and administrators at Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Washington.
The school could easily have been in Broome County and the students we get to know in the film, desperately seeking love, safety and validation, are found in every locale. The intimate stories told in this film highlight how adverse childhood experiences (ACES) can change brains and hearts, leaving adolescents vulnerable to both neuro-physiological and emotional challenges as they fight to survive with inadequate support structures.
The youth we see in Paper Tigers have uncommon spirit that enables them to share the complex and painful circumstances in their lives. What becomes evident is that without the relentless support of an elder, they struggle to see the difference between real and paper tigers that torment them and stifle their healthy development.
The connecting thread determining the future for each child we get to know in the film is the presence of a stable, caring adult who stands by that child unconditionally.
The evening program, co-sponsored by the Broome County Family Violence Prevention Council, concluded with a panel discussion on the critical issues raised in the film and how the Binghamton community addresses them. Participating on the panel were:
- Patricia A. Follette, Superintendent of Schools in Whitney Point
- Mary Kay Roland, Superintendent of Schools in Johnson City
- Michelle Feyerabend, Director of Academic Coaching, Johnson City Central School District
- Dr. Denise Yull, Assistant Professor in Binghamton University’s Department of Human Development
- Dr. Rhonda Levine, Professor of Sociology at Colgate University
- Luann Kida, Community Schools Director at Broome County Promise Zone
The forum, moderated by Dr. Lisa Blitz, Associate Professor, Binghamton University’s Department of Social Work focused on how Binghamton’s trauma-informed community schools are wrestling with the pernicious effects of ACES.
Mary Kay Roland said that kids here battle very similar demons as those portrayed in the film. They are “scared to graduate” because of the daunting future looming ahead once they leave the relative security of high school. One avenue by which positive relationships are developed between students and adults in Binghamton is via Promise Zone, a safe place where sharing can occur.
Denise Yull commented how challenging it is for the caring adult to understand how best to approach a child struggling with ACES. It takes specific training, a topic that was not addressed at all in the film. An audience member suggested that every single adult in the school setting is also a human services provider and needs to be trained,
Such training takes resources, Rhonda Levine, Professor of Sociology at Colgate University, suggested. The Lincoln Alternative School seemed not to lack in funding, but which is a formidable hurdle for most schools today.
Denise opened up the topic of institutional racism within the school, which adds to the trauma students of color already may bring from home. That prompted many comments from the audience, and others on the panel, about the irrationality of suspensions as a way to correct in-school behavior. Research shows, Denise added, that even one suspension increases a child’s dropout probability by a factor of three.
Youjung Lee, Assistant Professor of Social Work at Binghamton University, said that trauma is also “institutionalized” in the home. Grandparents she works with are stunned when confronted with the fact their own traumas continue to be visited on their grandchildren.
In light of the fact that such students struggle to stay in one school, often switching to a new one mid-year, Larry Parham, from Citizen Action of New York, summed up the discussion by stating that each school system needs to support every other one, to highlight the positive things going on in our community, and encouraged his colleagues to give voice to their concerns for the sake of the children.