Teaching in Trauma-Informed Schools

Sierra Lindfors near one of her favorite parks in Rochester

There is a glaring disparity when only 61 people are arrested on the day they stormed the U.S. Capital with guns, zip-tie handcuffs, and murderous intent, yet elsewhere, in one day, arrests are made of 316 Black Lives Matters protesters (June 1, 2020), 575 immigration policy protesters (June 28, 2018), and 372 Keystone pipeline protesters (March 2, 2014).

This disparity in how people are held to different standards is prevalent nationally — commonly referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline — and starts at preschool in Minnesota and carries through the entire educational experience of people of color.

In Minnesota, according to a report by Education Minnesota, Black students are disciplined more harshly for subjective offenses such as dress code violations, defiance, and disrespect, while white students are disciplined for more objective offenses, such as vandalism or truancy. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights determined that Black students in Minnesota were eight times more likely to experience suspensions than their white peers, and Native American students 10 times more likely.

A national research team confirmed that Minnesota is in the top 10 states for worst disproportionality rates for suspensions and expulsions of Native American students.

To transform this pattern in Minnesota, policymakers and advocates in education are seeking to confront biases in communities and schools. Organizers like M.K. Nguyen and Chauntyll Allen, for example, are urging legislators and other policy makers to see how the lack of teachers of color and representation in curriculum help to reinforce the school-to- prison pipeline.

“The system is set up right now to erase our greatness — that we were part of building this great country,” Chauntyll Allen said in a February 4 virtual event hosted by Voices for Racial Justice and The Uptake. “When we don’t have Black teachers in front of us in the classroom, it is hard to interrupt that message that is coming through the curriculum. We need to be able to see ourselves in something other than the slave depictions put out there, and see that we are capable of any and everything.”

In 2015, Education Minnesota launched the Educator Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), which brings together teams of educators to provide research-proven solutions to challenges faced in schools. Teams dig into academic research on a topic, share their own experiences, and decide what policy proposals best solve the challenge.

One of the first papers, published in 2017, called for lawmakers and education leaders to rebuild systems with restorative practices, rather than punishment. The call was to repair decades of harm caused by “exclusionary and police-based practices that disproportionately harm students of color, students with disabilities, and students identifying as LGBTQ+.” The paper was updated recently as a 52-page report that begins with these words:

“If a student does not know how to read, we teach the student to read. If a student does not know how to behave, we punish the child. This is the root of the problem.”

The report indicated, “Educators need the agency to tackle the behavioral limitations of students in the same way they confront academic limitations. Allow educators to teach students life skills, both academic and behavioral. Educators should confront systemic and overt racism at every level.”

The report proposes solutions that would allow the creation of community around students and the development of support that administrators, educators, students, and families need to be successful. One solution proposed mandates that no child through third grade can be suspended or expelled; a 2017 Center for American Progress survey reported that 50,000 preschoolers in the U.S. were suspended at least once, and 17,000 were expelled.

Another solution includes funding training for educators and school staff in restorative practices and trauma- informed skills.

Sierra Lindfors, a second-grade teacher in Rochester and contributor to the Education Minnesota Trauma- Informed Restorative Schools Team, developed a passion for restorative practices while working in an “at-risk” youth foster home that served many children who experienced significant trauma. Experience in foster care, being unhoused, and witnessing domestic violence are some of the ordeals that children face.

The experience of working in the foster home taught Lindfors the “importance of meeting a child where they are at, listening to them, building trust and relationship, taking risks, and believing in a child’s ability to succeed regardless of their circumstances, behaviors, mistakes, backgrounds, and mental or physical challenges. A child needs one adult to truly believe in them and know them in order to succeed.”

The EPIC task force has recommended trauma-informed and restorative practices be implemented across the state of Minnesota, from preschool through high school, to enable teachers to examine their own inherent biases and support children impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Restorative approaches allow justice to be “done with you” and not “done to you.”

Lindfors suggests providing more mental health support for teachers to better connect with and support students and families, as part of a more wrap-around approach to today’s educational needs. “If I have a student who has some need — hunger or clothing — [a community-based school will offer] access to support in my school building.”

In 2021 the Minnesota House Select Committee on Racial Justice published a report on racial justice in Minnesota. The report recommends increased hiring for teachers; increasing investment in the development of full- service community schools; requiring “anti-racist, culturally responsive, trauma-informed, and restorative practices” training for educators and school staff; and providing alternatives to “exclusionary discipline” practices.

Discussions are underway in the Minnesota Legislature about “a broken economic model” that hinders early learning and child care. Recommendations in the Governor’s budget include funding for early childhood learning and other educational and healing initiatives.

“Antiracist and antibias work is not unique to education,” says Lindfors. “The issues we face are not to be solved [only] by the education system, but in conjunction with the communities, families, students, and governments we serve.”