Three decades ago, a team of researchers at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Diego asked thousands of patients about traumatic events from their childhood. The responses were collected and analyzed against health records for a study known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences study or ACEs, a landmark study in the field of trauma research.
The researchers found a strong correlation between the ten adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) - which include physical and sexual abuse, losing a parent, or living with an alcoholic - and health problems in adulthood: Individuals with an ACE score of four or higher are three times more likely to experience depression, seven times more likely to be an alcoholic and twelve times more likely to attempt suicide.
For Paladin Career and Technical High School Director Brandon Wait, this research was a revelation. He realized Paladin's approach had to change, "If a student doesn't feel safe in school, they're not going to care about Algebra Two," he said. "Of course academics are important, but until you can get a student feeling safe, they're not going to care."
Paladin is an alternative high school located in Blaine, Minnesota. More than 80 percent of Paladin students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. A third have experienced homelessness. For years, Paladin struggled to educate these students: fights and suspensions were common, graduation rates were low. After reading the ACE research, Wait began to suspect that many Paladin students suffered from undiagnosed trauma.
In 2012, Paladin asked students to take the ACE survey. They found that nearly all their students had at least one adverse childhood experience, a quarter had four or more.
Since then, Paladin has taken steps to join a new movement of trauma informed schools. Paladin now houses several on-site counselors, uses restorative practices to respond to discipline issues, and sets up each student with a "success coordinator" trained in trauma science. In the last four years, Paladin suspensions and expulsions dropped to an all-time low. The graduation rate has risen moderately.
Carl Fisher is a senior at Paladin. He is on student council and planning to attend college next fall. This is quite a turnaround from two years ago, when Carl was in danger of failing out of his former high school. For Carl, it is Paladin's attentive staff that has made the difference, "They take you under your wing like they're your child," he said. "They work out a plan for you, like, 'If you keep doing this, you can graduate.'"
Director Brandon Wait sees hope for these students in the relationships they build at school, despite high rates of trauma, "If you just read about ACEs, there's a lot of doomsayers, more likely to use drugs, get divorced, die early," said Wait. "What we don't talk about enough is how you overcome ACE's and that is through healthy relationships with adults."
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