Covering Trauma in Schools

How education reporters can produce compelling stories on student trauma without promoting stereotypes.

Ji’Air and Jerone were 3 and 7 years old when they found their mother dead in the kitchen covered in what Ji’Air described as “pink paint.”

But the brothers didn’t simply flounder or become disruptive in the classroom after this tragedy. Rather, as we learn in a multimedia series by Times-Picayune, their grandmother turned to the school they attended to find them counseling and help them heal.

Titled The Children of Central City, this award-winning 2018 series delves into the impacts of trauma in a New Orleans neighborhood. By the time reporters Jonathan Bullington and Richard A. Webster take readers into the city’s schools, to explore what is and isn’t working when it comes to addressing student trauma, we’ve come to care deeply about Ji’Air and Jerone, along with other families, and we’ve learned the science. We know trauma can — but doesn’t always — lock a child’s brain into a stress response that can make learning difficult and cause poor health outcomes in adulthood.

By focusing on the full experience of the family, The Children of Central City offers a model for other reporters to follow when reporting on trauma in schools.

Trauma is a big topic in education these days. It’s no surprise that recent years have brought a flurry of education reporting about trauma, from quick hits to deep dives.

These stories have probed practices meant to help kids self-regulate and better understand their emotions. They’ve explored the impact of trauma on behavior that can lead to suspensions.

On rare occasions, they’ve helped us feel the burdens and triumphs of children who’ve endured traumatic experiences, such as exposure to community violence; or addiction, mental illness, abuse or neglect in the home.

But, in reporting on schools, trauma has sometimes become shorthand for poor academic outcomes or disruptive behavior among low-income students. This raises the central question: As education journalists, how do we cover trauma well, and how do we do no harm?

Interviews with reporters, educators, experts on trauma and community stakeholders offer some guidance. Reporters should strive to improve their trauma coverage by taking more time to get to know the students they cover without defining them by their trauma, by explaining the science of trauma and resilience, by avoiding generalizations or assumptions, and by holding systems rather than communities accountable.

Take your time

Bullington and Webster’s 2018 series, which includes vivid photo portraits and a video documentary, won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma last year, recognized by the judges for the “incredible level of trust” the reporters had built with the community “after initially encountering much skepticism.”

The reporters built it by taking their time and being present. In a phone interview, Bullington said a community engagement grant from the Center for Health Journalism at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism enabled the pair to rent office space in the heart of Central City.

They stayed for four months, and in early interviews, didn’t take out their notebooks. After laying out initial thoughts about the project’s themes, they’d ask questions: “What do you think it should be? Where do you think people have gotten it wrong in the past?”

Residents answered. “They vocalized the concern that…we’re tired of being painted as this hopeless depressing place where there’s nothing but crime and drugs and poverty, and that’s all we are is our worst,” Bullington recalled.

To convey the fullness of Central City life – the joys and the challenges – Bullington and Webster focused on The Panthers, a football team of 9- and 10-year-old boys. At least one of the reporters was present at every practice and every game.

In story after story there are loving families. Bullington said they were everywhere, and countered a narrative that he and Webster had heard elsewhere, that the violence in Central City “starts in the home.”

The time they took to get to know families helped them convey in individual terms what trauma can mean for a child.

Look for resilience

Taking some extra time is a necessity for good trauma reporting, Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, said in a phone interview. “Building up the kind of trust, whether it’s with kids or teachers or communities or families, that you need to have to capture the impact of trauma does often require patience,” he said.

Shapiro told me that reporters should also make an effort to illustrate resilience in children – and not just because it makes us feel good. It is part of the brain research on trauma. Kids in particular have tremendous reserves of resilience, Shapiro notes, and when journalists leave that out they risk treating kids exposed to trauma as if they are irrevocably broken.

The New Orleans team emphasized that resilience when reporting on Malachi, who at age 7 cowered in the back seat of the family car as they came under fire in an apparent case of mistaken identity. His therapist told the reporters that he had “seen few cases of post-traumatic stress disorder as severe as Malachi’s – and few recoveries as remarkable.”

Shapiro also highlighted another Dart award winner, Harper High, a two-part radio series produced by This American Life in 2013. Like the New Orleans-based series, Harper High gave a complex and thorough portrayal of trauma. Three reporters, including WBEZ’s former education reporter Linda Lutton, embedded at the Chicago school for five months, following students, school staff and families.

By bringing us so deeply into the lives of students who are navigating the aftermath and constant threat of violence, Harper High’s entire framework is about resilience.

Don’t overgeneralize

Stating that trauma can impact a child’s behavior in school is not wrong. The danger lies in generalizing that kids from a certain background have been adversely affected by trauma.

During conversations with the New Orleans reporters, community members also warned them not to focus on a single child to tell a larger story. It puts too much pressure on that kid, they said. And besides, there is no single typical story of trauma.

I got schooled in the problems with overgeneralizing during my own reporting for an ongoing series for KALW public radio probing the experiences of black students and families in San Francisco public schools. The neighborhoods in the city’s southeast, particularly historically black Bayview, had without doubt exposed children to community violence as well as some other forms of trauma. A piece focused on school responses to that trauma seemed like a no-brainer.

But, at a San Francisco Unified School District event, Enikia Ford-Morthel, then the assistant superintendent overseeing Bayview schools, told me it was critical to introduce a counter-narrative about “all the things that are positive and beautiful” in Bayview’s kids.

That “characterization of the Bayview, of ‘Oh they’re in trauma,’ ” may be true for some kids, said Ford-Morthel, now SFUSD’s deputy superintendent of instruction. But not for all. She said the community sees its children coming from a culture “of resilience…of overcoming” and of “so much amazing,” and acknowledging that in them is key to their sense of self.

Laticia Erving, program manager for SFUSD’s African American Parent Advisory Council also tensed at the mention of trauma when we first met over coffee to talk about stories, telling me that when she was little her mother was addicted to drugs and her father was murdered but that didn’t determine her outcome in life.

She’d grown up in Bayview loved by the grandmother and aunt who raised her, she shared. It wasn’t until a 7th-grade teacher told her, “I just wish I could take you home and give you a better life,” that she felt the sting of the trauma stigma.

“It put something on me,” Erving told me. “I do remember in that time thinking, ‘What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong me that I need a better life?’ ”

The perspectives of Ford-Morthel and Erving helped me work to tell stories rooted in the fuller experiences of students and families. Trauma comes up. But I try not to assume kids from low-income neighborhoods have lived it, or have been harmed as a result.

Running into trouble

Pulling off a trauma-informed story can be challenging for reporters executing quicker news stories or for those who go into a school with an accountability mentality, looking to expose what’s wrong rather than to understand and describe a holistic picture of what’s going on.

A Feb. 24 piece in Maine’s Bangor Daily News, Maine’s low-income students have fallen further behind their peers over the past 4 years, is one example among many, relaying the data linking poor test scores, poverty and trauma, and quoting a superintendent who says, ‘The symptoms of poverty sometimes can prevent students from learning.” Economically disadvantaged students, he goes on to explain, are “more likely to experience trauma such as family violence in their lives.”

Research confirms these correlations, but they are nuanced. And the proliferation of stories that reiterate them without addressing those nuances may contribute to stereotypes.

Stories that equate trauma with low-income communities of color without including the voices of residents are also likely to generate pushback from those communities.

For example, critics allege that a reported Feb. 15 San Francisco Chronicle column about bullying at a local middle school contained harmful generalizations. Headlined ‘Lord of the Flies’: Fights, bullying, chaos upend San Francisco middle school, it has come under fire from the district superintendent, a school board memberadvocates for low-income students of color, and some teachers and kids at the school itself.

The Chronicle column was written in response to complaints about bullying and concludes that more trauma services are needed. Its critics contend that, by broadly attributing violent and disruptive behavior at the school to “traumatized” kids bussed in from low-income neighborhoods of color, it caused harm.

Aim your reporting at systems

Critics of the Chronicle column also said it placed the blame on kids for acting out at school — without considering the school’s role in their behavior.

Stories on traumatized children often miss the mark by not reporting more about the systemic issues inherent to schools, school districts and our broader society – such as institutionalized racism — that may have led to the problems kids are experiencing in the first place.

Black students in particular are often traumatized by the school system, said Larry J. Walker, who has researched and written about the impact of trauma on African-American students, and is black. Studies have shown that educators often perceive them to be older than their years and punish and suspend them disproportionately.

Walker, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida in the Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education, said in a phone interview that reporters should be mindful of structural racism and the underlying reasons that families are more likely to live in neighborhoods impacted by violence – such as historic housing discrimination against families of color.

“The reporting,” he said, “has to be rooted in the system and not pointed at the community or the culture.”

Trauma and schools’ efforts to help children cope and heal are ripe for strong reporting.

Education reporters shouldn’t shy away from such stories. They just need to proceed with care and keep individual students and families in their thoughts as guides.

This type of reporting is challenging and can bring reporters out of their comfort zone. But if we are to truly understand trauma and resilience, it’s essential.


This piece was originally published by The Grade on March 11, 2020.