Creating safe environments for our children

August 26, 2018
Roger Sherman

With school starting up this month, there is a lot of excitement (if not always enthusiasm) brewing in my house and throughout all of our neighborhoods as kids get prepared. New clothes, school supplies, sports practices, registration and finally the first day of school. All of the annual rituals.

That’s what it should be about. All the fun stuff before they get back to work.

Increasingly, though, our schools find themselves thinking about safety. Parents worry. Parkland, Florida, may be a long way away physically but the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year feels too close for comfort. So what are we to do?

From my lens as an advocate for children with a focus on preventing child abuse and neglect, our schools need to become trauma informed.

Teachers need to learn more about the impacts of traumatic childhood experiences and their prevalence. Research tells us that over 50 percent of Idaho’s children have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. We all need to learn more about what drives a young person like Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, to become a killer. We need to understand that hurt people will hurt other people.

Cruz, like all of the boys responsible for school shootings, was a young man in a lot of pain — pain that he unleashed upon his former school, robbing 17 people of their lives and futures and countless others of their loved ones. Could this pain have been prevented? It’s worth doing whatever it takes to find out.

The landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides some clues. It showed that childhood trauma, i.e. abuse, neglect and serious family dysfunctions, have long-term behavioral and health effects into adulthood.

Researchers have found links between ACEs and health and social outcomes including depression, suicidal ideation and suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, hallucinations, insufficient sleep, intimate partner violence, heart disease, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, low yearly income, separation and divorce.

School personnel are in a unique position to address the needs of children who are in pain because of the ACEs they have experienced. We know that children who have experienced several ACEs live in a near constant state of toxic stress which makes learning difficult if not impossible. Failure in school and resultant social isolation and bullying can lead to the kind of alienation that Cruz and other school shooters have felt.

But schools must not be left alone to deal with children who are in pain because of the ACEs they have experienced. All of our systems have to change their approach to changing behavior — whether it’s criminal, unhealthy or unwanted behavior — from a blame, shame and punishment approach, to one that is based in understanding, nurturing and healing.

As a society, we must decide that preventing childhood pain and building the resilience that mitigates it, is worth the investment of time, effort and resources that it will take to wrap all children and families in our community — but especially those most vulnerable — with layers of support. We will have to make access to basic needs, emotional supports, education for parents, and other services as part of what we offer as a community to those in need.

As parents and caring adults in our communities we have a responsibility to create safe environments for our children. They are counting on us.

Roger Sherman is the executive director of the Idaho Children’s Trust Fund which is the state affiliate of Prevent Child Abuse America. Call us at 208-386-9317.

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