Breaking the Cycle

In areas with high rates of domestic violence, teachers to get special training

PHOTO: Flickr/jhilldesign1

When children are exposed to violence at home, the aftershocks can ripple into classrooms.

Often on edge and sometimes depressed, those students can struggle to concentrate and control their emotions, causing their grades and relationships to suffer. And with spotty training and limited insight into students’ home lives, teachers can fail to recognize the cause of these problems, much less put a solid plan in place to tackle them.

“Often teachers don’t have the language to talk about this stuff,” said James Waslawski, principal of New Directions Secondary School in the Bronx, a middle school for older students who are behind academically.

He estimates that 90 percent of his students have experienced some form of trauma, the majority of it related to domestic violence. Yet most teachers receive minimal training on how to help students deal with such issues, he added.

“It’s like one-fifth of what they need,” he said.

The city now has a plan to change that. Having identified the neighborhoods with the most reported incidents of domestic violence, trainers will go into the local schools to help teachers spot clues that students might have been exposed to violence, understand how that can affect students, and know what resources are available to them. After they are developed this summer, the three-hour trainings will begin in eight neighborhoods across the city at schools where the education department is already focused on bringing in more mental health and social services.

“This represents a very promising and exciting direction for districts like New York to go in,” said C. Cybele Raver, a vice provost at New York University who has studied how children who watch their parents fight may have trouble regulating their own negative emotions.

The education department is designing the trainings with the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, a partnership that grew out of City Hall’s “Children’s Cabinet” — an effort to improve coordination among 20 city agencies and offices that followed the death of an abused four-year-old boy last year. Education officials realized at the cabinet meetings that they could predict which schools are most likely to serve a higher number of students who have witnessed domestic violence, an official explained during a panel discussion at New York University last month.

“They know exactly which ZIP codes and what neighborhoods have the highest report rates and the highest rates of incidents of domestic violence,” said Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s community schools office. “So knowing that, probably, the students in those schools are witnessing that type of trauma and that type of domestic violence, we’re working on a professional development plan” for those schools.

The initiative will target these neighborhoods with high rates of domestic violence: Morrisania in the Bronx; Brownsville, Bushwick, and East New York in Brooklyn; East Harlem, Inwood, and Washington Heights in Manhattan; and Port Richmond in Staten Island. It will focus on “community schools” in those areas, or schools that receive extra funding to provide additional social services and mental and physical health care to students and their families.

Nationwide, more than one in nine children are exposed to some type of family violence each year, which can include physical attacks like hitting and choking or psychological violence such as threats, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice report. About one in 15 young people are exposed to some sort of physical assault between parents, the report found. Other studies have found that children who witness family violence are more likely to become victims themselves.

“This is a significant issue that has no awareness,” said Brian Martin, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Children of Domestic Violence, which provided free trainings to several hundred education department employees last year. “If you grow up living with domestic violence, that’s childhood domestic violence, and it has a massive impact on the life of that person.”

Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s community schools office, said the trainings were targeted to schools in neighborhoods with the most reports of domestic violence.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s community schools office, said the trainings will target schools in neighborhoods with the most reports of domestic violence.

Children who are exposed to violence at home are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, according to experts, who note that many children are able to cope with such experiences without showing serious problems. Long-term exposure can also act as a “toxic stress” that disrupts children’s brain development, specifically in the areas of memory, attention, and inhibition control, which are all crucial for learning.

That can lead to lower grades and test scores along with behavior problems as students who feel unsafe at home remain on high alert in school, making them easily distractible and prone to overreaction, experts say. If teachers have not studied the effects of trauma on children, they may not recognize such problems as symptoms of a troubled home life, said Raver, the NYU vice provost.

“They can see behavioral difficulty,” she said, “but have no understanding of where that’s coming from.”

The planned trainings for teachers and other school staffers will include an overview of domestic violence, signs that it is occurring, and how it relates to child abuse. They will also cover violence in teen relationships and the services available to families affected by violence.

David Pelcovitz, a professor of psychology and Jewish education at Yeshiva University, said that educators can play a pivotal role in helping students who are exposed to family violence.

Beside their responsibility to report signs of abuse, teachers can run classrooms that provide a sense of safety and predictability for those students, while also helping boost their self-esteem and self-control. Teachers can also act like “quarterbacks” by coordinating the efforts of school and city employees who interact with those students, Pelcovitz said. The city’s planned trainings could help teachers take on those roles, he added.

“They’re the ones on the front line,” he said. “So it’s on us to be more concrete in giving them the skills to support these kids.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede