‘Paper Tigers’ Spurs Community Discussion on New Approach to School Discipline

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Photo courtesy of KPJR Films – Steven, one of six students featured in the documentary, “Paper Tigers,” graduates from Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Wash.

By Stefanie Jackson – Local organization Eastern Shore Healthy Communities, in cooperation with the Roseland Theatre in Onancock, presented the documentary “Paper Tigers” May 23, the story of how one high school turned itself around, reducing the number of suspensions given to students and supporting their academic success.

“Stressed brains can’t learn,” said Principal Jim Sporleder, of Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Wash.

With that realization, Lincoln administrators and teachers developed a trauma-informed approach to teaching and discipline, based on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study conducted by health organization Kaiser Permanente from 1995 to 1997.

More recently, from 2009 to 2011, 15 states (not including Virginia) used a system developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to collect data on residents’ adverse childhood experiences.

“Paper Tigers” documents six troubled teens’ ongoing battles with ACE-related stress. Trapped in fight or flight mode, they’re unable to recognize the difference between real tigers and the “paper tigers” for which the film is named.

A child with multiple ACEs is more likely to smoke, use alcohol and drugs, be physically inactive, and miss work in adulthood.

That individual is also more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, stroke, cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, broken bones, depression, and attempted suicide.

Lincoln students took an ACEs survey anonymously and scored from 0 to 10 based on how many different adverse childhood experiences they had out of 10 possible choices.

The 10 ACEs listed on the survey were emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, emotional and physical neglect, and family dysfunctions including having a mother who was treated violently, parents who divorced, or a family member who was incarcerated or suffered a mental illness or substance abuse.

More than a third of adults who took the survey reported no adverse childhood experiences, but nearly two-thirds reported having one or more. About 26% reported one ACE, 16% had two, 9% had three, and 12% reported four or more.

Adults who had six or more ACEs died an average of 20 years earlier than those who had none. Individuals with no ACEs typically live to age 80, but those with six or more usually die by age 60.

The CDC estimated the lifetime cost of the mistreatment of children is $124 billion, including $83.5 billion in productivity loss, $25 billion in health care, $4.6 billion in special education, $4.4 billion in child welfare, and $3.9 billion in criminal justice.

To prevent adverse childhood experiences, the ACE study recommended home visits to families with pregnant women and newborns, teen pregnancy prevention and support programs, parent training and social support, domestic violence prevention, quality childcare, financial support for low-income families, and mental illness and substance abuse treatment.

Lincoln Alternative High School provides physical and mental health services and substance abuse treatment for its students at an on-campus clinic, meaning lack of transportation isn’t a barrier to students seeking care.

The ACE study also identified that safe, stable, and nurturing relationships (SSNRs) positively impact health issues and help children develop skills and fulfill their potential.

“Paper Tigers” echoed this assertion by stating that a healthy relationship between a student and one caring adult can make all the difference in the student’s future success.

“The behavior isn’t the kid. The behavior is a symptom of what’s going on in their life,” said science teacher Erik Gordon.

As administrators and teachers shifted their focus to the whole student instead of a single behavior, they became committed to keeping kids in school instead of excessively punishing them for non-violent offenses.

When a student named Steven was caught flicking a cigarette lighter and defiantly refused to turn it in, he was sent home, but he was allowed to return to school the next day. Normally, that offense would have warranted an automatic five-day suspension.

The teachers at Lincoln bonded with their students and become like a second family to them. Three teachers took Steven on a road trip to tour colleges; one became a foster parent to a student named Dianna after her mother kicked her out of the house.

The principal decided to change Lincoln’s approach to school discipline after attending a conference in 2010 that challenged his ideas. Three years later, there were 75% fewer fights on campus and five times the number of Lincoln high school graduates.

Northampton school board member Nancy Proto and educator Kevin Schwenk led a group discussion following “Paper Tigers” in which attendees commented on the film and considered how the ACE study and trauma-informed care could be implemented in schools on the Eastern Shore.

The scene that struck Proto the most was Steven’s return to school after he had been sent home the day before for possessing a lighter on school property.

Instead of lecturing him, the principal said, “Wow. What’s wrong? Are you OK?”

“And just that simple statement … seemed to open a door and start a relationship,” Proto said.

“That was enough to break down, or at least begin to break down that wall. It didn’t take much.”

Karen Hatch added, “What I really, really loved about the film was that no one treated the students like they were stupid. They educated kids about what’s going on in their minds and their bodies.”

“I think a lot of times, we don’t give students the credit they deserve for their ability to understand, and I think that scored a lot of points with the student body,” she said.

Bill Dyas asked if the Northampton school division could obtain the resources required to implement trauma-informed programs in its schools.

Proto said, “I think by having a staff that is trauma-informed, you can eliminate, potentially, a lot of problems right there in the moment, and you can … de-escalate rather than escalate a potential situation.”

She was alluding to training Northampton schools’ behavioral aides will receive on how to de-escalate aggressive student behaviors and prevent physical harm. It’s called Mandt training, named after its developer, David Mandt.

Proto also said Northampton schools were considering hiring two school social workers to “facilitate some of the counseling that may need to occur.”

Northampton supervisors will honor the county school board’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 in its entirety, which includes funding for at least one social worker.

Proto said it was “time” for a Trauma Informed Movement in Education locally and both the Community Services Board (CSB) and Eastern Shore Healthy Communities offer free classes and resources on trauma-informed care.

The CSB’s next monthly meeting on resilient and trauma-informed communities is Tuesday, June 4, 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., at the CSB office in Belle Haven.

The CSB’s next ACEs interface training session is Tuesday, July 16, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., also at the CSB office in Belle Haven. The class is free but participants must register in advance.

Patti Kiger, an educator and the executive director of Eastern Shore Healthy Communities, and Kitty Croke, a founding member of the nonprofit, Roseland Cinema and Entertainment Center, were both instrumental in organizing the “Paper Tigers” screening that was free to the public.