Baltimore Schools Working to Help Students Deal with Trauma

06 August, 2019

Tinazsha Johnson has experienced sad events and a lot of pressure in her young life.

Two years ago, when Tinazsha joined a sixth grade class at a new school, she was mourning the death of her mother. Her father had been in and out of jail. Tinazsha witnessed violence near her home in Baltimore, Maryland. She also felt pressure to help her grandparents raise her younger siblings.

Now, daily life is still difficult. But after spending two years at a new "trauma-sensitive" school, she is learning how to control the effects of pressure and sorrow. Together, these feelings had made her brain feel like a racing engine.

Tinazsha Johnson, 15, waits to talk about her project during the science fair a New Song Community Learning Center in Baltimore. Where she learned to cope with stress and sorrow.
Tinazsha Johnson, 15, waits to talk about her project during the science fair a New Song Community Learning Center in Baltimore. Where she learned to cope with stress and sorrow.

Tinazsha said she used to always be fighting and arguing with people.

"But this last year, I've been doing a lot better because I've been learning how to control my anger in a lot of ways and think positive thoughts to get me through," she noted.

The teenager spoke with The Associated Press at her school, New Song Community Learning Center in West Baltimore. It is open around the year, unlike most schools in the United States.

Tinazsha says the school has become her sanctuary from streets where the names of young gun violence victims are painted on the walls. Recently, Baltimore's school system held a ceremony to recognize the students who were gunned down this school year.

In Baltimore and other U.S. cities with high crime, school officials are realizing that long-lasting trauma in childhood affects brain development. It can create the risk of physical and behavioral health problems in the future, when the children become adults.

School officials have reacted by setting up the trauma-sensitive schools, both in big cities such as Chicago and San Francisco, and states such as Iowa and Wisconsin.

Baltimore's problems made national news last month when U.S. President Donald Trump criticized the area where Tinazhsa Johnson lives. Her neighborhood is part of a congressional district served by Elijah Cummings.

Trump tweeted that Cummings' majority-black district is a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" where "no human being would want" to live.

Trump's opponents criticized his comments. They blamed the president for not doing more to help Baltimore.

The "trauma-sensitive" schools are made possible in part with money from the federal government. The schools can help only some of those who need it.

With the help of $2.3 million in federal money in 2016, officials have turned 13 public schools in West Baltimore into trauma-sensitive schools. Students there have access to full-time mental health workers, mindfulness and breathing exercises and "peace corners," where they can go and calm down. School officials have reached out into the community to get to know the people raising the children.

The federal financing of trauma-sensitive schools ends this year. Officials are using the remaining money to teach everyone, from teachers and administrators to food workers, how to recognize and help traumatized students.

Experts from Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland are also providing services.

The school district will have a full-time social worker in all schools for the upcoming school year. The city also has created "calming spaces" and "wholeness" places for students in schools that are not official trauma-sensitive centers.

Patrick Sharkey is a sociologist at Princeton University in New Jersey. He said many children go to school carrying the weight of violence with them, and that harms their ability to get a good night's sleep and think clearly.

Programs like those in Baltimore can help, he said. He added it is important to recognize the most effective way to improve school performance is to deal with the problem of community violence.

I'm Bryan Lynn,

and I'm Anne Ball.

David McFadden wrote this story for the Associated Press. Anne Ball adapted it for Learning English.

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Words in This Story

sibling – n. a brother or a sister

trauma – n. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time

positive – adj. good or useful

sanctuary – n. a place where someone or something is protected or given shelter

rodent – n. a small animal (such as a mouse, rat, squirrel, or beaver) that has sharp front teeth

infested – v. to be in or over (a place, an animal, etc.) in large numbers

access – n. a way of getting near, at, or to something or someone