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Michigan schools seek to help students deal with trauma

Noe Hernandez
Battle Creek Enquirer

Battle Creek — Laura Williams has seen students run out of classrooms without good reason. She’s heard them scream in hallways for reasons she can’t explain.

That’s why she is leading an effort in Harper Creek Community Schools to figure out just how much of an effect traumatic experiences outside of school have on students in school.

“We want every student to thrive,” said Williams, assistant superintendent for instruction in the Calhoun County district. “Trauma in childhood experiences threatens academic and social successes.”

Harper Creek is hoping to make the school experience better for students grappling with physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and physical and emotional neglect.

It also hopes to help students trying to cope with dysfunction in their homes, such as mental illness, violence, substance abuse, divorce or a jailed relative.

Williams said that, according to national statistics, 28 percent of children experience physical abuse, another 27 percent struggle with substance abuse, 20 percent have been abused sexually and 13 percent have experienced violence in their homes.

Williams estimates that up to 1,150 of 2,600-plus students in the Harper Creek district could benefit from any efforts to help children deal with such adverse childhood experiences.

“It’s unfortunate that so many kids have gone through trauma,” Superintendent Rob Ridgeway said. “It’s a number of more than we even know.”

School board members approved a proposal last week to seek a $20,000 grant from the United Way for services that would help those students.

Williams hopes future funding can help about 30 key co-workers learn about trauma and how it affects the brain and learning, so they can help others. She also hopes to train one person to become an expert in restorative practices, which helps build relationships between students.

Harper Creek also plans to ask Battle Creek Public Schools, Pennfield Schools and Lakeview School District to join in the project.

If the funding falls through, Williams said she still hopes to create awareness of the issue, which would include finding resources online and a community showing of the film “Resilience: The Biology of Stress and Science of Hopes.”

“We want to build better bridges to medical (and) mental health professionals, community agencies and our fellow educators across Battle Creek so that we can collaborate and build capacity in order to be an even more compassionate learning organization that is stretching and supporting all of our learners,” Williams said.

“Staff members will be trained to help students restore their capacity for social connection, learning and self-regulation.”