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Why Kansas City Public Schools Are Taking A Trauma-Sensitive Approach To Discipline

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Trailwoods Elementary Principal Christy Harrison says her school has a 'warm, fuzzy' vibe that visitors frequently comment on.

A few years ago, Missouri’s suspension rate was the highest in the nation for young black students – an unfortunate distinction that forced Kansas City Public Schools to rethink discipline.

The district did away with automatic suspensions for a lot of less serious violations. This year, KCPS issued 31 percent fewer out of school suspensions to kids in kindergarten through third grade.

The district is also trying to treat the underlying trauma in students’ lives.

Calm down kits

Behavior therapist Ajibola Adepoju stands in her classroom at Success Academy at Knotts, vigorously shaking a water bottle filled with glitter. The shimmery liquid swirls and slowly settles. She picks up a rubbery Koosh ball.

“I am a person who responds really well to textures,” Adepoju says. “If I’m pissed off, sad, angry, frustrated – having this ball that has a lot of texture on it in my hand is calming and soothing to me.”

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
'Calm down kits,' like this basket in Ajibola Adepoju's classroom, are full of sensory objects that can help kids de-escalate when they are upset or angry.

These kinds of sensory objects can help kids get back in control of their emotions after a meltdown in class. Some kids will take a jar of Play-Doh from Adepoju and begin to knead it immediately, taking their frustrations out on the modeling clay.

“And some of them, they’re going to throw this calm down box all around the room,” Adepoju says matter-of-factly.

Knotts is the district’s alternative school for elementary students. Some kids are sent here for a week or two to serve out suspensions from other schools – what’s known as an “in-district suspension.”

“It’s not that you’re out of school suspended and in the community unaccounted for. You’re serving out your suspension here,” she says.

But other kids stay at Knotts for a semester or an academic year, usually because they haven’t been able to succeed elsewhere. At Knotts, they get therapy as well as academic instruction.

A soothing voice

“Tone is everything,” Adepoju says. “If I walk into a situation, and a student is upset, and they’re hollering, and they’re screaming, then what I tend to do is to make my voice even lower.”

Now, this isn’t easy to do. Most of us, when we’re being yelled at, we want to yell back. But a lot of the kids Adepoju works with have experienced verbal abuse – and a raised voice is triggering.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Ajibola Adepoju is a behavior therapist at Success Academy at Knotts, the district's alternative school for elementary students.

“So I noticed that you seem like you’re really upset right now,” Adepoju continues. “I get that. Can you tell me what happened?”

Some kids calm down quickly once Adepoju arrives to triage the situation. But there are times she spends the better part of an hour helping a child de-escalate.

“When you have a child screaming in your face or throwing things at you or destroying your classroom or school, it’s hard not to take that personally,” says Molly Ticknor, director of mental health services for the district.

Trauma-sensitive schools

Ticknor’s job is to educate KCPS staff on how trauma impacts the brain. It’s a pretty unique position – she doesn’t think other metro-area school districts have placed quite such an emphasis on trauma.

Her dream is to make every building in the district a trauma-sensitive school.

“We have students coming to school who see violence every day, whether it’s in their home or in their community, and that impacts you,” Ticknor says. “We know teachers go home stressed out because they’re overwhelmed. Because potentially they’re spending six hours a day trying to manage their classroom rather than teaching.”

Ticknor says the old school way of disciplining is about punishment. But in trauma-sensitive schools, discipline is more rehabilitative. Behavior therapists like Adepoju help students learn how to process the emotions that make them act out in the first place.

Ticknor says a trauma-sensitive school asks, “How are we coaching them through the behavior that got them in trouble?”

Some of the teachers Ticknor has worked with have really embraced trauma-sensitive techniques. She’s pretty sure that when KCPS asks about job satisfaction at the end of the school year, they’ll be happier than teachers who haven’t bought in yet.

Culture shifts take time, Ticknor says. “You’re having to change procedures and policies that have potentially been ingrained in an education system for a decade.”

Fewer out-of-school suspensions

During the 2014-15 school year, KCPS issued 1,060 out-of-school suspensions to students in kindergarten through third grade. Two years later, they issued 728 – a decrease of 31 percent.

Out-of-school suspensions were down in every single grade.

But over the same period, in-school suspensions went up – way up. Nearly 400 K-3 students received in-school suspensions during the 2016-17 school year.

KCPS Discipline Officer Darran Washington says in-school suspensions are much better for kids and families.

“We are putting all our energy into keeping students in school to get educated,” Washington says. “It’s so easy to say, ‘Well that student needs to stay in school. You’re not serving the kid. You’re just kicking them out.’ I get it and I understand it, I just think we all need to take responsibility.”

Washington says he gets it. He’s worried about the school-to-prison pipeline, too. But he thinks KCPS is headed in the right direction by not being so punitive.

He says by the time a kid comes before the Board of Education for a discipline hearing, the focus isn’t on the violation, but on how the kid got there and what needs to be done differently.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Trailwoods Elementary is a 'Leader In Me' school. It's a school philosophy meant to empower students. Principal Christy Harrison says it makes her school a place where teachers like to work and kids like to learn.

Getting the culture right in every KCPS building, Washington says, that’s just going to take time.

Fresh paint

When Christy Harrison first started as principal of Trailwoods Elementary on Kansas City’s east side, the school had a graffiti problem. It got so bad the principal kept the restroom doors locked all the time.

“We opened the bathrooms up and decided every time someone writes on the bathroom wall, we’re going to paint over it,” Harrison says. “We’re not going to have it. It’s just not who we are.”

Just like that, Harrison decided what kind of school she was going to lead. Today, she’s buying less paint than she was six years ago.

Once students realized their graffiti would be gone the next day, they stopped scribbling on the walls.

“We actually have a team of students who if they notice there’s a scratch on the bathroom stall, or if someone has written on the wall, they are actually the ones painting the stall over,” Harrison says. “If you write on the bathroom wall, now you’re impacting your friends.”

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Six years ago, Trailwoods Elementary Principal Christy Harrison says kids would write graffiti on the bathroom walls. Today, the bright purple walls are graffiti-free.

The cinder block walls outside the restrooms have been painted blue, green and purple. There’s a big, bright chart on the wall that shows who is responsible for which job. Harrison says it really helps the kids take ownership of their roles.

Visitors always comment on how warm and fuzzy Trailwoods feels.

“I remember some people came into the building at the start of the year and said, ‘Wow, this feels like a school that should be in Blue Springs,’” Harrison says. “It was a statement that kind of broke my heart because this is a school that should be right here in Kansas City.”

Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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