Toxic stress. Individualized Education Plans. Use of restraints and seclusion. Trauma Informed Care. Those are issues that have come to the forefront of children’s everyday lives in the Madison Metropolitan School District and have come to define what parents in this generation are concerned about for their kids.
2019 has been filled with tumult for the MMSD. By mid-April, MMSD has faced incidents ranging from teachers using racial slurs to faculty pulling a child’s hair out in a altercation to allegations of sexual assault. The presence of police officers in schools has led several members of the community to shout down the MMSD Board of Education on numerous occasions. Hot-button issues filled a tightly contested race for seats on that same MMSD Board of Education.
That was the backdrop of a community meeting on the night of April 16 at First Unitarian Society Church. Nearly 100 residents wanted and received a chance to discuss openly and thoughtfully the issues that their children face on a daily basis at school and the atmosphere surrounding MMSD in general.
The community meeting was moderated by Brandi Grayson and Matthew Braunginn and sought the expertise of a panel of specialists including:
Dr. Jasmine Zapata, who is a pediatrician; Dr. Angie Hicks, principal at Wright Middle School; M.Adams, co-executive director at Freedom Inc; Michael Jones, a special education teacher at Blackhawk Middle School; Jeff Spitzer Reznick, a civil rights attorney; and Brian Holmquist, coordinator of intensive support and critical responses at MMSD.
Members of the community interacted with the panelists, asking questions and raising concerns about Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s), in particular, and what criteria goes into determining which students receive IEP’s.
All of the discussion was building towards asking questions that were central to the theme of the gathering: When should a student be restrained or secluded? When is it appropriate for a faculty member to put their hands on a child? And how much force is too much? Or is it all to much?
The use of restraint or seclusion, especially with a child who has an IEP, has been a major topic particularly after the incident at Whitehorse Middle School. Dr. Zapata warned that physical contact with children, especially children who have experienced trauma can be extremely triggering for the child.
Knowing what each kid has been through (or not knowing and thereby not proceeding physically) is something that many on the panel and in the community felt was important when discussing physical contact with or restraint of students.
But for some faculty faced with escalating situations or altercations between students, sometimes it’s hard to think about each child’s individualized program when intervening. Michael Jones was extremely emotional when describing incidents at school that he has been a part of where he had to physically intervene with a student.
“It was tough to remember all the parts of her behavior plan when she took the pen out of my pocket, took the cap off and stabbed me in the chest with it,” Jones recalled. “It was also tough to remember the whole part of the behavior plan when she grabbed my wrist and held on to it.”
“It’s your job!” someone from the audience interjected.
“It is my job,” Jones replied while explaining that the girl he was forced to intervene with had been hurting and beating on another child. Jones said his responsibility wasn’t only to intervene properly with the girl who was hitting the other child, but also to protect the child that was being hit. “I also have a responsibility to do service for the girl who is being beaten,” he said. “I have to look out for all my children.”
All of the panelists and members of the community who spoke were equally emotional and emphatic, as well as empathetic. But after long discussions about IEPs, things built to a crescendo as Grayson directly asked MMSD’s representative about the protection specifically of black children in the district.
“What specifically does MMSD do to ensure that black children’s existence and experience is taken into consideration?” Grayson asked Brian Holmquist.
Holmquist replied that if the question was about an MMSD policy, then that question would have to be addressed to the general counsel of MMSD. The audience laughed and clapped because the forum had been going for nearly two hours at that point and Holmquist knew the entire time he would be asked that question and, when the time came, he deflected it.
Matt Bell, who works as counsel for MMSD was in the audience and spoke in answer of Grayson’s question, said that MMSD’s current seclusion and restraint policy follows state law, which says those things can be done when there is a clear and present and imminent risk to the child or to someone within the school system. He said that staff has been going through training in trauma-informed practices but realizes that the racial climate around the district is not solved by those training sessions or policies.
“I’m going to struggle with this question because if there’s a district out there that, in any district I’m aware of, that has eradicated racism, I wanna know about it.”
Incidents like at East High School recently or Whitehorse Middle School have been heavily reported on and were, of course, traumatic for the victims involved as well as for children and faculty who witnessed them.
But much of the trauma that children in the district experience or carry with them on a daily basis goes unseen. Difficulties at home, racism, abuse, hunger, homelessness, being outcast because of disabilities or perceived disabilities and many other things contribute to what all of the panelists labeled as toxic stress and trauma that plague youth at school.
Much of the discussion was around the concept that faculty and adults in the system have to be aware that anything can be triggering for youth who experience trauma, which is one of the reasons so many in the community have been opposing police being in schools because of the impact their presence might have on children of color.
“There’s so many different types of traumas but especially post traumatic stress syndrome,” Dr. Zapata said. “We talk about trauma-informed care strategies. So for example, me, I’m a hugger. I love to hug people everywhere and I spread love everywhere I go but when I’m working with a lot of kids I have to realize that sometimes touch can be triggering from an experience that they’ve experienced when they were younger, whether it’s physical abuse, whether it’s anything. And sometimes the presence of someone in the position of an authority figure, like especially with police, just to have the presence of police where you’re nervous that at any moment you could get shot, I think that can be re-traumatizing.”
Zapata explained that constant stress (toxic stress) along with traumatic experiences literally changes the brain chemistry of youth. Fight-or-flight responses, impulse control, proper emotional response and other areas of social behavior are impacted in the person’s brain.
“What can count as trauma or toxic stress?” Dr. Zapata continued, “The way that our black and brown kids feel oppressed at school, being treated differently, racism, that is a form of toxic stress. What our kids are facing today at school, that’s toxic stress or trauma. I would argue that racism is a form of trauma.”
Dr. Hicks said that in her experience, the black children she works with have experienced more trauma on average growing up than their white counterparts.
“We need to remove the taboos about talking to people (about trauma),” Dr. Hicks said. “To remove the taboo around getting help.”
But how MMSD could play a role in kids getting that help, MMSD’s perspective on what the policies of restraint/seclusion should be, and the perspective of the district in a more direct way about the presence of police in schools and the criteria for IEP’s weren’t things the community was able to get answers about during the forum because MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham was not in attendance.
Grayson said that Superintendent Cheatham had originally committed to come and did not know why she wasn’t there. Madison365 was unable to get comment from the district spokesperson about Cheatham’s absence.
M. Adams, who helps run Freedom Inc, said that while the forum was a success, she wants the community to be able to make things happen on its own regardless of whether or not leaders from MMSD show up.
“We need to do more of setting the table for ourselves and inviting people to that table to be able to have conversations and also put the ideas down side by side, measure them up,” Adams told Madison365. “What does and does not work? What is being said here that’s important is that black students are disproportionately impacted, students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted. Also some of the analysis that’s really important is the role of power in all of it. That it’s not just about what one person thinks or feels. And also a direct challenge to the laws and policies of MMSD and not letting them off the hook for it. I think that’s all important and powerful.
What I really wish for is that we had the ability to make things happen. And that’s the vision, that’s the goal. Do I think Jen Cheatham has the responsibility to show up where she’s supposed to be? Yeah. But whether or not she comes to this, what happens after this? Is all of this conversation going to force a change? If it’s not then I don’t need for her to show,” Adams said, shrugging.
Educational Resource Officer Tray Turner, who is black and very interested in being part of these discussions, was not allowed by the Madison Police Department to show up for the meeting. District Attorney Ismael Ozanne also declined the invitation.
At the heart of discussion was the use of IEP’s and what determines who gets one. Several people felt that black and brown students face institutionally racist views about their level of intelligence and behavior that lends itself to being given an IEP.
The panel and community discussed the concept that white kids are given more rope for how they move around, yell, touch or show different behaviors than children of color. M.Adams told the audience that a child can be seen as having an “emotional issue” because they are not in line with mainstream white properness which is coupled with the concept that being different is a punishable offense.
“The problem isn’t me,” Adams said. “It’s society punishing me for hearing differently than you do or not sitting still the way you sit still. All of us have differences and all of us have needs. But some of us are punished for having differences and needs.”
Jeff Spitzer Reznick said that the criteria for IEP is based around if a child has a disability and if they have a special need. Michael Jones said that for a student to qualify for disability, it has to manifest itself outside of the school and inside of the school. So they take into account the students interactions with family members outside of school. Jones said they have to prove that disability impairs the kids’ ability at school.
The racial dynamics manifest themselves in that, as Adams was saying, proper “white behavior” is the standard by which appropriate behavior is judged. Which leads a disproportionate amount of black and brown students to be labeled as having a behavioral problem, which puts them in to a path at school where they are singled out as being disabled or otherwise troubled, which is causing them stress and trauma, which then leads to them having a behavioral outburst to release all that tension and now they are in the crosshairs of either police who are at the school or faculty who are putting hands on or secluding or punishing them.
That is the vicious cycle.
“Trauma-informed care needs to be anti-racist,” Dr. Hicks said. “And when we stop looking out the window and start looking in the mirror, that’s when we can change the narrative. This is about us coming together and doing this work together.”