Stop the Madness – Schools Must Be Trauma Sensitive

by:  Julie Beem

video stillI knew it — from the first time this photo and story showed up in my Facebook feed.  The security officer forcefully removed a teenage girl from her math class after she had been using her cell phone — by knocking her chair to the ground.  And then I saw an interview with Niya Kelly, another student in the classroom who was also arrested for declaring “this is wrong” after she saw her classmate being dumped out of her desk and thrown across the room.

Niya told the reporter, “I know this girl don’t got nobody and I couldn’t believe this was happening.”  There it was – this girl is alone.  And the most recent stories confirm that in fact her mother recently died and she’s living in foster care.  Whether you call that trauma or just overwhelming grief and loss, the point is that this girl who did not comply with her teacher’s request to give up her cell phone was under a lot of emotional distress.

Accounts from other students in the class were that the girl was working on the computer and took her cell phone out.  The teacher asked her to give him her cell phone, but she refused, so he called the administrator.  The administrator asked the girl to get up and come with him and she refused to leave the class. Then the resource officer was called and well…you can see what happened   Raw footage video here

The student who filmed the incident on his phone described the girl as apologetic even though she didn’t comply — she just didn’t get up to leave.  Why?  Those of us in the trauma world see this as a “freeze” — with her emotional brain in charge, she literally may not have been able to force herself to get up out of that chair and go.  It was likely a “can’t” and not a “won’t”.

Even if you don’t view it that way – even if you’re not convinced that this girl was unable, emotionally, to comply with the school authorities’ escalating requests/demands to get up and leave the class, you can clearly see that they didn’t even consider exploring why she wasn’t complying.  Obedience at all cost was the goal.  Understanding “why” the girl wasn’t complying never seemed to enter the minds of any of the adults in charge.  The sole purpose of all their actions were to “make her behave” in the way they wanted her to.  So, since this is a school…what exactly did the students learn from that?

Well most of them weren’t actually “learning” in the moment, because an event like that triggers everyone’s emotional brains, making learning impossible.  It’s obvious that the adults in charge were triggered as well by their escalating requests.  So no one’s thinking brain was on line (well, the young man filming the situation had the presence of mind to grab his phone and record.)  But you can tell from the body language that everyone was feeling fear and shame. That classroom became an unsafe place, and I’d be very surprised if the students in that class learn much of anything academically for the rest of the year.

We’ve got to stop this madness!  It’s well past the time that schools become Trauma Sensitive.  It’s not that hard — and it will make a world of difference.   Just simply asking “what happened to you?” vs. “what’s wrong with you?” (especially when it’s combined with an insistence on compliance) is a huge first step. We have to go further than firing the resource officer or even changing a law that allows schools to arrest students on campus. We have to change our whole approach to one that presumes that there is something “underneath” that prevents the child from behaving as we’ve requested. And we need systems in place to be able to understand what that something is.  And then we need to create and keep an environment that feels safe and respectful for everyone.

To learn more about the trauma side of the story:

Interview with student Niya Kelly who was also arrested is here.

Interview with student Tony Robinson who filmed the incident is here.

Julie has been ATN's Executive Director since 2009. She joined the organization in 2004 after finding incredible support from fellow ATNers when she was searching for answers about her own daughter's early childhood trauma and attachment disorders. Julie leads a staff of passionate professionals and acts as spokesperson for the organization. Prior to ATN, Julie was the president of a marketing and communications consultancy, The Epiphany Group, and has over two decades of experience in professional services marketing, strategic planning and communication strategies. As a graduate of Partners in Policymaking and through personal experience, Julie has garnered a great deal of experience in the areas of special education, school issues, and disabilities advocacy. A published author, Julie wrote a chapter in the EMK Press Adoption Parenting book and was the special needs blogger at for two years. She frequently presents workshops on attachment and trauma to local and national groups. Email Julie. Julie holds an MBA from Avila College in Kansas City and was a Certified Professional Services Marketer. Julie, and her husband Dave, are parents to four (bio, step and adoptive), including their youngest daughter, adopted from China. This daughter’s attachment difficulties and developmental trauma disorder have changed their lives significantly…in amazing ways.