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Inside the Kansas City school teaching students how to cope with the trauma of gun violence

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Alex Smith
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KCUR
Sirtain, a junior at Success Academy at Anderson school in Kansas City, Missouri, wants to help his classmates learn to steer clear of conflict as part of the school's restorative justice program.

Kansas City, Missouri, saw a record 180 homicides in 2020, and 2021 is on track for another deadly year. Inevitably, the trauma from this gun violence makes its way to students, forcing Kansas City Public Schools to rethink its approach to education and discipline.

Between bites of chicken sandwiches, students joke with principal Robert Lee in the cafeteria of Success Academy at Anderson in Kansas City, Missouri.

Students typically come to Success Academy when they’ve had behavioral problems or other difficulties at traditional schools in the Kansas City Public Schools district. Many of them face obstacles like abuse, neglect, homelessness and violence in their communities.

Kansas City saw a record number of homicides in 2020, with 180 people killed, overwhelmingly by firearms. It now ranks as one of the the most violent cities in the country. This year, Kansas City has reported an average of more than one murder every three days.

In the wake of these tragedies, Lee worries that it's become so common for students to mourn their friends and neighbors, the trauma has been dulled into an empty ritual.

“I’m afraid that some kids — when they do that there’s routine where, ‘OK, I remember him. I get a tee shirt with his picture on it and remember him,’ and move on,” Lee said. “For some, it’s sort of like, ‘OK. This is normal.’”

Acts of gun violence cast a wide shadow. Studies estimate that one homicide victim leaves between seven to 10 traumatized family members, plus friends, neighbors and co-workers.

Repeated exposure to violence leaves developing brains in a chronic fight-or-flight mode that impairs the ability to learn and can lead to behavioral problems. Black Americans are especially likely to become “homicide survivors,” putting them at higher risk for a host of mental and physical health conditions.

Recognizing the trauma that many of its students live with, Kansas City Public Schools in recent years has rethought its approach to handling violence.

In a shift away from traditional ideas of discipline, the district launched a new strategy for handling conflicts called "restorative justice" that advocates say will help students both inside and outside of school.

“What I’m hopeful is that we’ll start to see transition in our community and in our families that result in more conflict resolution using nonviolent manners,” said Travanna Alexander, behavioral health manager for Kansas City Public Schools.

Everyday conflicts

One recent Thursday at Success Academy demonstrated that getting to the root of violence sometimes starts inside the school buildings themselves.

Following his shift as cafeteria monitor, the principal returned to his office. But almost as quickly as he settled behind his desk, he heard shouting outside his door and jumped up to investigate.

Just down the hall, a fight involving multiple students erupted and security guards raced to break it up. As teenagers were pulled away from the chaotic jumble, they cursed and tried to twist free.

One female student screamed and cried, breathing quickly as she was brought into the principal’s office to escape the fight.

Other students were escorted to counseling offices or ushered back to classrooms — the school went into lockdown.

Minutes later, inside his English class, teacher Robert Meade nervously tried to talk through what just happened — hoping to steer the discussion back to Zora Neale Hurston.

One student expressed frustration with what he called a harsh response to the incident by the school's staff, and Meade asked him to consider why the staff acted that way.

Micha
Alex Smith
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High school freshman Micha says that in-school fights can escalate to off-campus gun violence.

Success Academy has seen a fair number of lockdowns over the years, but students say disruptions to class lessons are the least of the potential fallout.

Micha, a ninth grader, says in-school fights can escalate and lead to gun violence off campus. (KCUR is only using the first names of students in this article to protect their privacy.)

“You gotta watch your surroundings if it’s like that,” Micha said. “It’s not just gonna be that one time. ‘Oh, this happened, and it’s just going to go away.’ No. They’re gonna keep it up.”

Mediation not suspension

Historically, schools have dealt with incidents like these through punishment — like suspension — rather than addressing underlying trauma. An ACLU report showed that Missouri ranks among the worst states in the U.S. for its disproportionate use of suspensions on Black students.

According to senior restorative justice coordinator Sarah Eblen, Kansas City Public Schools took this punitive approach for decades. In doing so, the district created a strained relationship with its students, and vilified those whose behavior suggested they needed real help.

“Our code of conduct had the word ‘threat’ or ‘threatening’ in it to describe students 17 times,” Eblen said. “So we are already creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for students because the verbiage, in the code of conduct and how we talk about students — we’re calling them a threat.”

In 2017, KCPS launched the restorative justice process as part of a broad campaign to teach students to regulate emotions like anger and anxiety.

Restorative justice is influenced by the idea of dignity described by Harvard psychologist Donna Hicks — who says that violence hurts the self-worth of both the victim and perpetrator. This cycle is perpetuated by an urge to retaliate after feeling shamed or humiliated.

In a pilot project at Kansas City's Southeast High School, instead of punishment, students who were involved in conflicts were given the option to sit down with a mediator and other students or teachers involved. They would talk through the issue together and plot a more constructive resolution.

Eblen says that many students took to the program right away, though some teachers resisted.

“To sit down and look someone in the eye and hear them out, it’s a vulnerable space to be in,” Eblen said. “And we’re not used to vulnerability in schools. Schools are power structures. So to think ‘I’m going to be vulnerable enough to put myself at the same level of a student’ — teachers aren’t really used to that.”

The change proved effective: Two years after restorative justice mediation began at Southeast, suspensions dropped by almost 40%.

'Pride to the side'

This year, KCPS took the additional steps of revising its code of conduct to reduce suspensions and expand restorative justice programs to more schools.

However, a complex mediation strategy is a tough sell when students struggle just to feel safe. Just a few months into the program at Success Academy, restorative justice has gotten mixed reviews, even among students who realize they could use the help.

This semester, many fights among female students have started or escalated on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat, before winding up in school.

Sophomore Mariyah says that in the heat of these confrontations, she finds herself blacking out.

“It’s hard for me to let go of anger,” Mariyah explained.

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Alex Smith
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Mariyah, a student at Success Academy at Anderson, hoped to end a conflict with another student through mediation, but the session ended after she became angry.

Mariyah, whose favorite subjects are math and gym, has been involved in an ongoing conflict with another student this fall. She entered into mediation in hopes of resolving it, but Mariyah said their session ended within five minutes.

“She wanted to do it. We both wanted to do it, but I was angry at the time and said some things that I shouldn’t have said,” Mariyah said.

Fights among male students have decreased, according to Sirtain, a laidback junior who hopes to someday work at the Ford plant in Claycomo. He credits restorative justice for improving relationships among the young men at his school.

Sirtain is now training to be a student organizer for restorative justice, to help his classmates learn to steer clear from the pull of fights.

“You gotta learn to put your pride to the side,” Sirtain said. “You gotta be able to move around the snake pit. For real. For real. You gotta be able to not get bit.”

Restorative justice programs originated in prisons and are now growing in popularity in schools around the country, according to Francis Huang, associate professor at the University of Missouri College of Education and Human Development.

They're not a proven formula yet, though. Huang says that mediation programs have generally appeared to reduce suspension and improve student morale, but the research is still limited.

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Alex Smith
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Markia, who is in 8th grade, says she didn't take a recent "tussle" with another student seriously, but she agreed to a mediation to prevent it from escalating.

Huang says restorative justice has strong potential as a solution to deeply-rooted problems, but it can take years to show results.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to relationships, we know that it takes time to build,” Huang said. “If it’s damaged, it takes time to actually repair relationships.”

Huang adds that restorative justice isn’t a substitute for the individual mental health treatment needed for students struggling with trauma.

Overwhelmed

Kansas City Public Schools is expanding its restorative justices program during an especially difficult period. At Success Academy, Principal Lee says it’s the hardest time for students he’s seen in his three-decade career.

Teenagers have been showing increasing anxiety, depression and aggressive behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a national survey of parents.

On top of Kansas City's rising violence, Lee explains that many Success Academy students now face additional economic hardship and health worries related to the pandemic, as well as uncertainty about the future.

Following the Thursday afternoon fight, the Success Academy building remained on lockdown for the rest of the day.

Staff members like trauma sensitive clinician Kristen Dua scrambled to give emotional support to students, including suicide screenings.

“Today’s just an example of buttons getting pushed and feeling overwhelmed, and not knowing what else to do about it,” Dua says.

Sitting in her office as classes let out, Dua explains that mediation and other restorative justice practices will come later, after the immediate danger fades.

For now, she’s just trying to give support to students who feel like they are falling apart.

“They’re just dealing with so much. They’ve said, like, ‘I’m really trying,’” Dua said. “So recognizing their efforts, and like, ‘I know you are.’ And sometimes you take two steps forward and three steps backward, right? But tomorrow, or when you come back, we’re going to keep moving forward. Together.”

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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