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Day 5: ACES: Breaking the cycle: One school district is leading the state and nation in approach to serving students grappling with chronic stressors

NORMAN — A rapidly changing student population combined with two high-profile sexual assault cases involving students forced school district leaders here to find a new approach to educating kids.

“We saw a need in all of our schools. We realized a lot of our students were suffering from adverse childhood events, and we wanted to set up a framework in all schools to help all students,” said Sharon Heatly, director of guidance and counseling.

Norman Public Schools set out to become “trauma-informed” from top to bottom, and now district and school site leaders say there’s no going back from the culture of respect and support they’re creating for all kids.

“This is an issue rooted in inclusiveness and equity — kids who need a boost. And to help, we have to think about student behavior in a different way,” said Jason Sanders, an assistant principal helping lead the change across Norman Public Schools and within his own school community at Whittier Middle School.

Being a “trauma-informed” school requires the adults working in schools to be trained to recognize and respond to the signs of traumatic stress in children, which research has shown can hinder learning and negatively affect a person’s health throughout life.

The goal is not only to provide kids with new coping tools to better manage behavior but also to improve overall school safety and educational outcomes.

“We don’t want their past experiences to define their future. We want them to be able to move forward,” Heatly said.

Practical realities

Every principal, teacher and school resource officer assigned to Norman Public Schools by the city’s Police Department has extensive, ongoing training in trauma and resilience training, as well as suicide prevention.

And every school has a dedicated trauma team with two to three teachers, a counselor and one administrator who can respond to students in crisis, be it with behavioral issues, sexual assault or harassment, neglect, loss, suicidal thoughts or violence.

“Sometimes I just wonder: How can this child get up and go to school each day?” Heatly said. “It has been overwhelmingly sad but also compelling in the way we can help students.”

Change had already come for this once-sleepy college town when the reported bullying of three sexual assault victims at Norman High School erupted into community protests that made national headlines in November 2014.

Then, in January 2016, a 16-year-old and a 12-year-old reported being sexually assaulted by teammates on a bus as the junior varsity wrestling team from Norman North High School returned from a tournament.

But Norman Public Schools was already beginning to grapple with the challenges presented by its significant uptick in student poverty levels, Superintendent Nick Migliorino said.

During the past two decades, Norman’s rate of students qualifying for free or reduced-rate school lunches based on household income had climbed from 17% to 20% to more than 50%.

Migliorino describes the use of trauma-informed practices in schools as a recognition of the practical realities of Oklahoma’s nation-leading rates of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.

“Seeing the changes in our society, it’s disheartening — it’s scary. It’s our job to put systems in place to address those,” Migliorino said. “We’ve been responsive, been able to adapt as things have evolved.”

‘What happened to them?’

Norman leaders say they believe they’re the first school district in the U.S. to employ student advocates, who are mental health counselors who advocate for kids even when that means asking a teacher for special accommodations or asking a principal to deviate from rules or regulations when need be.

The first two advocacy counselors were charged with primarily attending to sexual assault and sexual harassment issues in Norman’s two high schools, and then the district won a federal grant to fund similar positions for two middle schools, as well as outside mental health service providers to work with students during the school day.

“Trauma-informed means changing the mindset in the whole building from ‘What’s wrong with them?’ to ‘What happened to them?’” said Norman North High School Student Advocacy Coordinator Lori Hollingsworth.

Hollingsworth said there is no such thing as a “typical” day in her line of work.

“I never know what my day is going to look like,” she said. “My job is to just be available to kids.”

That means furnishing basic necessities to students who know to come to her if those resources aren’t available at home. She stocks up on bottled water so kids can pop in and get a cool drink when what they’re really after is a place to cool off emotionally.

Some kids need help processing a family crisis from the night before or guidance in how to deal with a dating relationship issue.

The toughest cases are victims of abuse or other crimes, and those kids get immediate attention, plus contact with school resource officers for crime reports and referrals for outside mental health services when necessary.

Hollingsworth has seen her caseload grow, and she thinks that’s not only an indication of a growing need but also of growing awareness about the availability of help.

“Kids talk. I get a lot of my referrals from friends of students I’ve already served,” she said.

“The more we educate students about adverse childhood experiences and the need for mental health, the more they will seek help.”

Saying that “we want school to be a safe place — many students get here as early as they possibly can,” Hollingsworth added, “I think kids are in a space here where they know they have resources, and they’re utilizing them.”

Needs have never been greater

While trauma-informed training is now standard procedure from top to bottom in the Norman district, individual school sites there have been able to adopt unique strategies and programs.

At Whittier Middle School, just west of the University of Oklahoma campus, Assistant Principal Sanders and Sgt. Joel Formby, a school resource officer with the Norman Police Department, lead a therapeutic support group for boys called Wednesday Warriors in a nod to the school mascot.

They started out with sixth-graders with two or more serious behavior infractions. But since then, they have expanded to 30 students, including seventh- and eighth-graders, and students who have had trouble making friends or other difficulties identified by their teachers.

The Warriors meet each week in groups of 10 not only to review their grades and reflect on their behavior from the previous week but also to eat a lot of pizza and bond during special learning activities such as fishing and basic car mechanics.

For Sanders and Formby, it all boils down to ensuring that every child has the opportunity to build relationships in their school community. They’ve even shared with the students about their own adverse childhood experiences, and that has made it easier for the students to open up with one another.

“It comes down to an equity issue for me,” Sanders said. “Every single boy in all three grade levels (in the program) comes from divorce — the largest single adverse childhood experience. Many are being raised by grandparents. A lot of kids don’t have the knowledge of how to navigate school.

“It’s a mindset shift we have to have for a lot of our teachers. If you haven’t lived those experiences yourself, you can’t appreciate what some kids are going through.”

They’ve seen improvements in everything from the Wednesday Warriors’ grades and classroom behavior to their relationships with teachers.

Along the way, they’ve also helped students navigate obstacles and challenges great and small, from homelessness and the incarceration of one child’s father to the need for regular haircuts.

“We were having this constant battle with one boy wearing his hoodie — there’s a rule that says you’ve got to remove your hood,” Formby said. “Instead of a simple punishment, I found out he felt embarrassed about his hair, so I found a local barber shop to provide free haircuts. That hood came right off. You could tell he felt better about himself, and pretty soon more kids started asking for haircuts.”

Jonathan Atchley, principal at Norman’s Irving Middle School, recently recruited a master teacher with extensive experience as a foster parent to help transform his school’s in-school suspension classroom.

Instead of a kind of holding cell, the Irving Restoration Program requires students to complete self-reflection assignments, community service within the school and a lesson specific to their particular infraction.

“Before, we spent most of those teachable moments trying to get people to understand what we have to say instead of, ‘What’s the story?’” Atchley said. “It’s us asking ourselves: How can we help that child make different decisions instead of us just telling them to make different decisions? You have to do something different with each one of those kids instead of the same approach all of the time.”

From August through February, the school of 850 students posted 51 lost instructional days for students, compared to 84 during the same period the previous academic year.

Atchley used the all-too-common discipline issue of physical fights among preteens and teens as an example.

In trying to understand each kid’s story, educators can help students become more self-aware of their issues and how better to deal with them.

“In the past, we would have said, ‘Don’t hit people.’ Now, instead, it is, ‘What are your triggers? What got you into that situation? What is the story of your life that has taught you that fighting is the only way out of those situations?’”

Atchley said educators have been quick to embrace the idea of being trauma-informed because, as a rule, they’re drawn to the profession out of a desire to truly help kids.

“We have so many societal issues we have come to accept as normal that we are not addressing in school or as a society — that we are not addressing how simple or how profound it impacts a kid’s life,” he said.

‘Healing to Learn’

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has been working to raise awareness among educators and parents about the need for trauma-informed approaches and the employment of more counselors in schools.

And Oklahoma’s new first lady, Sarah Stitt, has even taken up support for the cause, appearing at the most recent childhood trauma summit hosted by the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

“The current movement toward trauma-sensitive schools and trauma-informed instruction comes at a time when more than ever Oklahoma students are in need of this mindset shift among the adults in charge of their learning, care and well-being during the school day,” Hofmeister said.

She has issued a call for new state funding to significantly increase the number of counselors working in Oklahoma’s public schools. She also points to Norman’s example in encouraging schools to consider the trauma-informed approach while molding it “to meet the unique needs of their students, faculty and community.”

“Norman Public Schools has increased the sense of safety and security within its buildings for all students, with the understanding that trauma-informed practices work for every student, not just those who have experienced a traumatic event,” she said.

The ideas are beginning to be embraced in a host of ways in communities across Oklahoma.

Tulsa school leaders held book clubs and pursued professional development training on the topic throughout 2018-19 and are incorporating the ideas into discussions with community mental health providers who work in schools, said Ebony Johnson, executive director of student and family support at Tulsa Public Schools.

In Bartlesville, a new “alternative learning environment” for elementary school students in trouble is set to open this fall.

Called ATLAS, which stands for Academic Therapeutic Learning Alternative School, the program will serve 12 early childhood and 12 upper elementary students at a time in a half-day program on the campus of Ranch Heights Elementary School.

Superintendent Chuck McCauley said school districts that are large enough typically have alternative settings for secondary school students. But his district’s teachers have expressed growing concerns about issues they’re seeing in younger students.

“We wanted to do something completely different for our elementary kids to help get them back on track,” McCauley said.

A teacher and teacher’s assistant from Bartlesville Public Schools and a mental health therapist and behavior health coach furnished by Grand Lake Mental Health Center will work together to help ATLAS students “gain the social-emotional and academic skills they need to be successful.”

“Our motto is ‘Healing to Learn,’” McCauley said. “The goal is for the students to return to transition back to the regular classroom as they are ready.”

Day 5: ACES: Breaking the cycle: Central High School teacher advocated for Aylin Reyes; now she advocates for children

As a child in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Aylin Reyes had a single mom. She didn’t know her father. Educational opportunities were grim. Adversity was prevalent.

Her family relocated to Tulsa eventually, and she fell under the influence of Claire Johnson, her theater teacher at Central High School.

“Having at least one teacher that really invested in me and cared about me made me want to also be that advocate, be that adult for other kids,” Reyes said.

Now 22, Reyes is that advocate for kids facing their own adversity.

She visits Union and Tulsa Public Schools on behalf of Camp Fire Green Country, the Tulsa organization that works to enhance and empower children. She might play soccer or board games, or paint, or just act silly with them. Anything to spark a child’s interest and activity.

Whatever she does, and whomever she mentors — Reyes focuses on third- through fifth-graders and is heavily involved in Camp Fire’s Latino initiative — she has root priorities.

“I try my best to create a safe environment for the kids,” she says. “Not just physically safe where they’re not hurting themselves but also emotionally safe. So if they do bring up any problems that are going on at home or at school, they know that I’m a trusted adult that they can come to and talk to.”

Reyes’ root activity is to listen.

“I think we miss little things here and there with these kids,” she says. “You can tell when they want to speak up about something. It really does happen a lot more than we think it does. It’s just a matter of whether we’re listening.

“If we’re willing to show a genuine interest in them, they’ll open up and they’ll try new things. They’ll grow with you.”

Those who listen, show interest or provide adult stability can have a deep and meaningful impact on a child who has endured some trauma.

“I’ve had kids that start Camp Fire and, at the beginning of the year, they might be very distracting, they might be hitting other kids, they might flat out not want to participate or tell us that it’s boring,” Reyes says. “By the end of the year, they’re leading us through an activity. It’s fantastic.”

Teen gets life without parole for crime spree, killing of Broken Arrow teacher, the harshest sentence for a minor in Tulsa County since 2004

A teenager who killed a Broken Arrow teacher and raped an elderly woman during an armed robbery spree has received a life without parole sentence plus 100 years — the harshest punishment a Tulsa County judge has imposed on a minor since 2004.

Deonte Green’s sentence was announced after Tulsa County District Judge Kelly Greenough found the teen “irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible,” a criterion for imposing life without parole on a defendant who was a juvenile when the crime occurred.

Green was 16 when he fatally shot Shane Anderson, a Broken Arrow Public Schools middle school geography teacher, and committed the rape on Oct. 1, 2017.

Greenough handed down a life without parole sentence on a first-degree murder count and a combined 100-year sentence on three of the five armed robbery counts and the rape charge, which will be served consecutively.

“I’m grateful the judge’s sentence reflected (Green’s) character, his crimes, his inability to live within the boundaries of society,” Darcie Anderson, Shane Anderson’s wife, said after the decision. “But in the end nothing’s going to bring my husband back. So while I’m glad that justice was served in his case, I would trade anything to have my husband back.”

Green, now 18, entered blind guilty pleas, or pleas without a recommendation from a prosecutor, in March to 19 felony counts and one misdemeanor charge.

While announcing her findings Wednesday, Greenough said evidence showed that Green acted “without regard for empathy to his victims” and found that he exhibited “a pattern of assaultive behavior” even after being in custody at the Tulsa County jail.

Tulsa County Sheriff’s Sgt. Virgil Collett had testified Tuesday that Green had at least an estimated 30 incident reports in his file since being arrested for Anderson’s death.

Green’s case marks the first time since 2004 that a defendant in Tulsa County has received life without parole for a crime committed before his or her 18th birthday. Darrel Miller, who was 17 when he was charged with murder, pleaded guilty to life without parole that year for killing a man during an armed robbery in exchange for then-District Attorney Tim Harris’ withdrawal of his request for the death penalty.

The U.S. Supreme Court determined in 2005 that it is unconstitutional to sentence anyone to death for an offense committed before the defendant was 18.

In the case resolved Wednesday, Green committed a series of armed robberies that on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 2017, in south Tulsa. He was on juvenile probation as of August 2017 after being adjudicated for four felony property crime charges related to two previous incidents.

Green had a dozen referrals on his juvenile record, starting when he was 11, according to records the Tulsa World obtained in 2017.

“This is not a single bad day,” Assistant District Attorney Kevin Gray said. “Deonte Green has worked up to this for years. For somebody that age to have this kind of criminal history is staggering.”

As part of his plea, Green admitted stealing a vehicle from an elderly couple on Sept. 30, then robbing a second elderly man and woman the next day. He forced the second couple to drive him to an ATM to withdraw money and ultimately robbed another ATM customer who tried to assist with the transaction.

He admitted to then raping the elderly woman at her home, where he also shot at a cat. From that home Green went to the Andersons’ home, where Darcie Anderson said in a victim impact statement that he held her at gunpoint in their garage and demanded money.

Shane Anderson was grading papers when his wife, their daughter and Green came inside the house. He died after Green shot him during a struggle in the living room.

Later that night, Green confronted a couple as they sat in a vehicle in a parking lot, stealing the man’s wallet, groping the woman and making a lewd comment to her. Tulsa police officers arrested Green shortly afterward and said he confessed to the robberies and the homicide.

“This is eating me up day by day,” Green said in a statement to the Anderson family read by one of his attorneys, Stephen Lee. “My intent when I went to your house was not to kill anyone.” He wrote that he “made a mistake,” and he asked the family for forgiveness.

He also referred to himself as a “misunderstood boy” and said he was not a monster, but Darcie Anderson later said the language in the letter led her to believe that Green — who acknowledged struggling to read and write — did not write it himself.

Because Green was a juvenile when the crimes took place, he was legally entitled to a specialized sentencing hearing to determine whether he is “irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible.” The designation, a legal standard first established by the U.S. Supreme Court, must be made before a court can consider life without parole for a minor defendant.

Courts are supposed to consider issues such as maturity and sophistication, family environment, legal history, pattern of living, likelihood of rehabilitation and ability to distinguish right from wrong.

Lee and his co-counsel, Mark Cagle, asked for life with the possibility of parole, noting that such a sentence still would not guarantee that Green is ever released. They also asked Greenough to find that Green is not beyond rehabilitation. While they pointed to records indicating that he has an IQ of 59, Greenough said evidence indicated to her that Green is “street-wise.”

Members of Green’s family declined requests for comment Wednesday, but Green’s stepfather, Mario Brown, testified Tuesday that Green lost his grandmother to an apparent heart attack when he was 14. Green’s father died in a police shooting when Green was 10, and Brown recalled how Green planted flowers that were stained with droplets of his father’s blood.

“I don’t know what more sign you need that you need somebody to talk to. That type of trauma requires professional help for a child that age,” Lee said, saying Green never received proper therapy.

He later said he was disappointed in Greenough’s decision, telling the World: “I do not believe in life without parole for juveniles and hope that our criminal justice system eventually abolishes (life without parole) for all juvenile offenders.”

But Gray said Green’s behavior continued to escalate in severity, and he contended that he displayed a lack of genuine remorse.

“In a rare situation like this particular situation, justice, I believe, demanded that he stay off the streets forever,” he said.

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Tulsa mayor describes seeing police officers' interactions with black youths differently from speakers at council meeting

Mayor G.T. Bynum stepped into the middle of the city’s raging discussion of race, policing and perceptions on Wednesday when he disagreed with how speakers at a City Council meeting described police officers’ interactions with residents of Town Square Apartments earlier in the week.

Several speakers described to councilors how officers swarmed into the apartment complex in multiple unmarked vehicles, ordered people to show identification and searched an occupied vehicle for its identification number despite the fact that the people inside the car had done nothing wrong.

All of this, the speakers said, happened as children were out playing.

“Burned in my memory is a police officer looking into the hood of the car trying to read a VIN number because they are harassing teenagers about a parked car that they are sitting in where a young man is telling them, ‘This is my mom’s car. If you have these questions, call her,’” said Gregory Robinson II.

“I’m trying to figure out how on a Tuesday evening there are six police cars with Gang Unit vests on harassing teenagers in a parked car. … This is terrorism that I saw yesterday.”

Bynum, it turns out, saw something different. And he, too, was at the Town Square Apartments on Tuesday night, participating in a ride-along with the same violent gang gun task force whose actions Robinson spent three minutes decrying.

“I saw everything that happened, and it happened five feet away from me,” Bynum said. “And I had a very different take on what I saw than what I have heard about tonight.”

Bynum described seeing people waving to the officers and officers talking to a man they knew. Officers in the violent gang gun task force travel together in groups, he said, to ensure officers’ safety. By his account, Tulsa police had acted professionally at every call he accompanied them on in the apartment complex.

“I did not see terrorism last night. I did not see harassment of teenagers,” Bynum said. “I saw a very different dynamic occur once folks started showing up and telling people in that complex that this is racially biased policing.”

Bynum had begun his remarks by acknowledging that as mayor of the city he would have a different perspective of the incident than the children in the apartment complex. Nonetheless, his remarks prompted Robinson to approach the podium after the meeting, demanding to be heard again.

He was heard, for a time, before the conversation spilled into the hallway outside City Council chambers. There, the conversation continued, with Bynum and many frustrated Tulsans trying to reconcile how a group of African-Americans and a white mayor could see the incident so differently.

It was an ironic ending to a meeting at which councilors took public comments for next week’s second Equality Indicators special meeting. Robinson and others were there to speak on next week’s topic: racial disparities in police use of force and existing practices to improve outcomes.