June 13, 2018. Chesterfield Observer.

Chesterfield school officials have committed publicly to expanding trauma-informed care training for staff as part of a “cultural shift” they think will reduce office referrals and out-of-school suspensions and keep children in the classroom.

Now they have to figure out how to pay for it.

Step one in that process took place during a recent meeting of the County Schools Liaison Committee. Connie Honsinger, the school system’s trauma-informed care training and intervention specialist, briefed members of the Board of Supervisors and School Board about an initiative that is “changing the lens through which we look at children’s behavior.”

“Trauma happens everywhere. We know it’s pervasive in our community. It doesn’t distinguish between race or socioeconomic status,” Honsinger said. “Instead of asking ‘What’s wrong with that student?’ we’re asking the question ‘What has happened to that student?’ This is key because when we look at it differently, we can find different solutions that are much more effective.”

The county school system launched its trauma-informed care effort about three years ago, when it was one of several in the Richmond area cited for disproportionately referring black students to law enforcement – which has been identified as a critical factor in the school-to-prison pipeline.

It created a task force and began looking at best practices, then developed training modules and compiled stakeholder feedback. What the school system discovered, Honsinger said, is that teachers already were looking for additional tools and strategies to help them manage their most challenging students.

“Our job is teaching and learning and if children aren’t in the classroom, we’re not doing that,” added Carrie Coyner, who represents the Bermuda District on the School Board.

“When you are able to build relationships and talk to kids, that’s how you know the difference between Johnny is just having a bad day and doesn’t want to participate, and something terrible happened to Johnny and it has manifested in his behavior.”

According to data released by the U.S. Department of Education in April, black students comprised 15 percent of the national public school enrollment during the 2015-16 school year, but represented 31 percent of students referred to law enforcement or arrested.

The disparity was wider in Chesterfield, where black students represented 25 percent of the school system’s total enrollment but received 47 percent of its law enforcement referrals.

Two local school officials – Chief Academic Officer Thomas Taylor and Chief of Schools John Gordon – acknowledged the statistical disparities when they spoke in late April to a group representing more than 20 church congregations across the Richmond area. They also told participants in an assembly of Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities, or RISC, that Chesterfield will expand trauma-informed care training beyond its schools with the highest identified need.

“The reality is there’s pressure on the system to keep kids in school. We need to do a better job of creating strategies so our teachers are equipped to manage some of these behaviors in the classroom,” said Midlothian District School Board member Javaid Siddiqi.

Chesterfield is the only school system in Virginia that has devoted a full-time employee to trauma-informed care training. But with more than 60,000 students, school officials see a glaring need for additional staff.

Honsinger presented a slide to the Liaison committee that called for 132 full-time employees – 64 counselors, 32 psychologists, 32 social workers and 4 trauma-informed care specialists – at an annual cost of $8.6 million.

“This is pie in the sky,” she said.

While the school system plans to track data related to trauma-informed care over the next 18 to 24 months, convincing the Board of Supervisors to allocate local funding for an expansion of the initiative could be a hard sell.

The board’s chairwoman, Dorothy Jaeckle, expressed concern that teachers will stop issuing office referrals – even for egregious student conduct – for fear of “getting in trouble” with their superiors.

“It looks like you’re shifting everything onto the teacher now,” she said.

“What I hope is [teachers think], ‘Now I know what to do with this child,’” Honsinger replied. “Because before, all I knew is I could send him to the office.”

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