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.”

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Andrea Eger 

918-581-8470

andrea.eger@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @AndreaEger

Staff Writer

Andrea is a projects reporter, examining key education topics and other local issues. Since joining the Tulsa World in 1999, she has been a three-time winner of Oklahoma’s top award for investigative reporting by an individual. Phone: 918-581-8470

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