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by Dave Marsden
There is a growing awareness in the United States of the impact trauma makes on the lives of children, both at home and in their community and school settings.

Students explore their emotions by taking part in Art Voice at Crocker College Prep, one of six New Orleans schools in the Trauma-Informed Collaborative.

Students explore their emotions by taking part in Art Voice at Crocker College Prep, one of six New Orleans schools in the Trauma-Informed Collaborative.

When New Orleans, La., joined the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention more than 3 years ago, the city’s Health Department was becoming more aware of the potential for reducing violence through a trauma-informed care model. Several children, including a middle schooler, had recently been killed, and it was clear that responding to these incidents with school-based counseling was an insufficient response. Integrating trauma-informed approaches in schools on an ongoing basis appeared to be a critical step for the youth violence prevention effort in New Orleans to take.

Thus began the Trauma-Informed Schools Learning Collaborative. The problem was how to prepare schools to cope with violence in a systematic way. Training was already being presented to school personnel, but the need for this well-attended and well-received training needed to penetrate deeper—reaching all levels of school-based staff, not just the counselors and mental health professionals. Intervention in circumstances of trauma needed to occur on the front lines in real time, and through the “trauma lens.”

The Health Department’s Chris Gunther, coordinator of the New Orleans Forum site that operates under the umbrella of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s NOLA FOR LIFE strategy, was instrumental in organizing and assembling a team to carry out this mission. NOLA FOR LIFE was created before the National Forum effort to reduce the murder rate in New Orleans, but it has been enhanced as a part of the city’s membership in the national network.

Mental Health Providers, Nonprofits Team With Six Schools
Health Department Director Charlotte Parent also has been a key player in supporting this effort. “Addressing trauma is a key part of our work to prevent violence,” said Parent. “Our children and our city cannot thrive if exposure to violence goes unaddressed. In the past, our efforts were too focused on trauma response, not prevention, and we fell short of changing day-to-day practices in schools. What was called for was something bigger: ongoing support for schools to help them become places where everyone in the building views things through a trauma lens—what we call trauma-informed schools. Our hope is that this Learning Collaborative will equip our partner schools with the skills they need to become trauma-informed schools.”

Joining the Health Department in this effort was Stacy Overstreet of Tulane University’s Psychology Department. Overstreet was asked to help create the structure and research rigor for the Collaborative, which consists of six New Orleans schools: Carver Prep, Crocker College Prep, Sci High, Success Prep, and two KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools. New Orleans mental health service providers and nonprofits joined the Collaborative.

Acting Out Often Rooted in Mental Health Disorders
Amanda Aiken of Crocker College Prep stated that the Collaborative was a great opportunity. “Many problems that appeared to be disciplinary issues were in reality mental health problems,” Aiken observed. “Teachers needed to be informed of this actuality so that students would not be retraumatized in the classroom.”

According to Rochelle Gauthier, also from Crocker College Prep, “Our neighborhoods are experiencing a great deal of violence, and one family’s trauma affects other families in that neighborhood.”

‘From “What’s wrong with the child?” to “What happened to the child?”’

According to Lisa Richardson of the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies (IWES), a community-based health organization that functions as a liaison to Crocker, “Trauma is a community, family, and personal problem that leads to posttraumatic stress disorder, suicide, etc.”

IWES conducted a study with 1,300 students that grew out of a teen pregnancy initiative designed to screen young women for PTSD, depression, and other disorders. After gaining permission from school officials and parents, they began to elicit information from young women about issues such as bullying to gain information about victims and perpetrators to make targeted interventions to reduce intimidation and violence.

Paulette Carter of the Children’s Bureau in New Orleans, which does clinical work with young people, related that, surprisingly, families do not identify Hurricane Katrina as a major factor in the level of trauma experienced by the community. But she followed with the concern that “it does trigger trauma-related to instability,” adding, “Many New Orleans children do not have recollections of Katrina, but they are experiencing the loss of family cohesion and support and the trauma that their parents experienced.” Trauma existed before Katrina, of course, and new trauma has been piled on old. But supports are being put back in place, according to Carter.

“System change is focused on supporting teachers and staff in creating a common language for and understanding of how kids adapt to trauma exposure and how that impacts learning,” offered Stacy Overstreet. When teachers are better informed about trauma, their training instructs them of the potential difference between a child in need of a disciplinary measure and a child who needs a referral to a mental health provider because of untreated trauma.

As Carter put it, “We are changing the conversation from ‘What’s wrong with the child to what happened to the child?’”

Consensus Makes Collaboratives Tick
A collaborative effort is in contrast to a top-down organization. Collaboratives require equal access to the means of communication, good information, and resources for all participants. Decision-making in collaborations is most often made through consensus, so a well-functioning governance structure is critical.

New Orleans has found an effective way to share information and make decisions. The Learning Collaborative has created a three-tiered team structure. This is how a “learning collaborative” would appear to work. Staying nimble and finding ways to enhance violence prevention efforts by redirecting or expanding one initiative into something that can affect other goals has been an effective way of making progress.

The Mayor’s Office and other relevant agencies such as the Police and Health Departments review the collaborative direction and progress monthly, as part of the NOLA FOR LIFE strategy. Chris Gunther leads a second team consisting of agency staff and other direct service providers, including Tulane, Project Fleur-de-lis, the Louisiana Public Health Institute, the Children’s Bureau of New Orleans, Strategies for Youth Development, the Metropolitan Human Services District, and IWES. These constitute what Gunther calls the “Collaborative Faculty.” Lastly, the six schools and service providers meet monthly to share information, insights and operational matters related to service provision. This system ensures that everyone participates and everyone has a voice in this important program.

The lesson for all of us engaged in youth violence prevention is that we must always look out for new and better ways to provide services for young people. This will often include improving the skills of staff on the front lines who are engaged in reacting to, treating, and preventing the trauma at the core of youth violence.

Contact Us
Send questions or feedback about the newsletter to Bass Zanjani, Project Director, OJJDP’s Youth Violence Prevention Technical Assistance Program, at or Bass Zanjani, project director, at 301–951–0056. If you haven’t already, subscribe.

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The National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention Newsletter is prepared under Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Cooperative Agreement No. 2014–MU–MU–K021 with Development Services Group, Inc. The views, opinions, and content of this newsletter do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or policies of OJJDP.