The audience had just heard two wrenching tales of Detroit children dealing with childhood trauma: a 9-year-old boy who witnessed his father kill his mother, and a 14-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by an aunt’s friend.
And afterward, during a panel discussion on the stage of a theater at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Detroit school counselor Quan Neloms made a sobering point: Those tales were not surprising.
“We deal with stories like that every year. We find ways to instruct those students, to help them to achieve,” said Neloms, a counselor at Bow Elementary-Middle School. Neloms recently transitioned from teaching to counseling in part because he’s dealt so often with children struggling with trauma and understands its impact on the classroom.
A recurring theme among the experts who spoke during the NBC News Learn event Thursday was this: Children dealing with trauma need help, but they also need adults to hear them.
“We need to learn to listen,” said Jason Wilson, founder and CEO of The Yunion, a Detroit nonprofit that services children and families. He said what children need most is to be able to “express themselves without condemnation.”
Issues related to childhood trauma, chronic absenteeism, teacher morale, and lack of opportunities took center stage during a wide-ranging discussion about education. Much of the event was centered on education in Detroit, though the audience also heard from people like Terry Dangerfield, the superintendent of the Lincoln Park Public Schools District in Wayne County.
That district, the audience learned, has sought to train staff to better meet the needs of students dealing with trauma through its Resilient Schools Project.
“We were missing the boat,” Dangersaid of the district before it began investing in addressing trauma. “There are humans … we were failing to meet their needs.”
A significant number of the children served in the early childhood centers run by Starfish Family Services are dealing with trauma, said Starfish CEO Ann Kalass.
“It’s really about creating an environment that is compassionate, understands what trauma is, that recognizes it and can respond to it. It’s a journey,” she said.
Earlier this year, Chalkbeat wrote about a program at one of those early childhood centers that uses an approach called reflective supervision. The method has been used in the mental health field to help therapists and clinicians work with their supervisors to process their feelings about the difficult situations they see in their work, and at the Starfish center, it helps staff deal with the trauma their students face.
During a panel discussion about chronic absenteeism, the audience learned that more than half of the children in the city meet the definition of chronically absent, meaning they’ve missed 18 days in a typical school year. It’s a problem both district and charter schools are dealing with.
Rev. Larry Simmons, who heads up the Brightmoor Alliance and is part of the Every School Day Counts initiative, said students who are frequently absent are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to get into trouble.
He said the problem needs to be addressed from a young age, when children are in preschool. Several people on the panel made the point that the entire community must be invested in improving attendance, from school staff to parents to community groups.
“You can’t do it without us,” Simmons said.
The Detroit school district has seen a decline in its rate of chronically absent students. During the 2017-18 school year, it was 70%. It declined to 62% during the last school year.
Ines de Jesus, senior fellow at Attendance Works, attributed the decline to the work that has been done since the 2017 arrival of Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. He’s invested in ensuring that every school has an attendance agent and positions, such as deans of culture, that are designed to improve the climate in schools.
“It takes everyone coming together to move the needle on attendance,” de Jesus said. “I see that movement.”