Healing-Centered Schools: A community-led approach to creating safe and healing school environments

By Sara Werner, Contributor, and Keyna Franklin, Assistant Editor

Rise has been exploring abolition and how community-led approaches can support safe, thriving families and communities, free from child welfare involvement. Rise has also reported that when families need support, schools frequently report parents’ to the state child abuse and neglect hotline, and the harm this causes to families. Nationally, 90% of school-based calls are later deemed “unsubstantiated.”

The Bronx Healing-Centered Schools Working Group has developed a community-led model and process to shift the culture of schools in the Bronx to focus on healing. The working group collaboratively created a Community Roadmap to Bring Healing-Centered Schools to the Bronx.

Here, three members of the working group, Rasheedah Harris, Katrina Feldkamp and Nelson Mar, discuss the vision for healing-centered schools and how this approach will benefit families and keep students safe — without overreporting to CPS or policing in schools. Rasheedah Harris is a Parent Leader and leads the working group’s outreach efforts. Katrina Feldkamp is a Staff Attorney at Bronx Legal Services. Nelson Mar is Senior Staff Attorney at Bronx Legal Services.

Q. What is a healing-centered school?

Katrina Feldkamp: It is a school where every student, staff member, parent and caregiver feels valued, welcomed and physically and emotionally safe. The school has gone through the process of removing structures that harm students, caregivers and staff, building structures that help students grow, and creating a healing environment for the entire school community.

Rasheedah Harris: When parents search for the “best” school for our child, we ask, “Is the school safe?” It’s not just about being safe from physical harm. There are emotional and psychological aspects of safety that healing-centered schools address. We all know, deep down, the importance of getting to know each other, treating each other with respect, and supporting each other. Schools should be spaces where people feel safe asking for help and children can thrive.

Q: What are processes and practices that your Roadmap recommends in order to create a healing-centered school environment?

Harris: One essential step is establishing a Transformation Team that includes teachers, parents and students and represents every aspect of the school community. This is important because traditionally, DOE policy changes don’t involve parents and students.

Feldkamp: The Transformation Team solicits feedback from students, parents, teachers and the school community to understand what is going well, what structures and practices are causing harm and what gaps need to be filled. After gathering information, the Transformation Team creates a healing-centered plan, targeting the needs and goals of the school community. The Team can look at our menu of practices (and other resources) to decide how to make change. This includes looking at how to align school culture with the practices they plan to implement.

The Roadmap also offers a variety of healing-centered teaching strategies educators can use in the classroom. For example, we describe how teachers can “chunk” academic information, using different strategies to break up information. This approach helps students who have experienced trauma or are in a higher stress state to learn, process and retain information. We also give examples of grounding techniques and mindfulness strategies that educators can use that are proven to help students stay calm, engage and learn.

It’s not just about academics, so we have a whole section on strategies for engaging with behavior in the classroom. One strategy is called “Applying an academic error response.” When an educator encounters challenging behavior from a student, they can use the same response they would use with a student who got a math problem wrong. It involves asking questions like, “What other ways might you approach this problem?” This approach is proven to help students feel safer in the classroom.

Healing-centered schools must also support staff wellness. We recommend a program called “Tap in, tap out”. It allows teachers who are feeling overwhelmed or dysregulated to ask another teacher to “tap in” and cover their classroom for 5-10 minutes while they take a break and ground themselves. This practice promotes teacher wellness and models self-care and self-regulation for students.

Harris: Holding restorative circles is another way to provide a safe space for reflection and healing. To be effective, the approach needs to be genuine and holistic — all interactions throughout the school day need to reflect restorative practice and values, even outside of circles.

It is also important that when students arrive at school (whether in person or online), they feel welcomed and are entering a space that creates joy and a yearn to learn. In the classroom, rather than immediately going into the lesson, we recommend a morning check in – creating space to check in to see how each child is doing.

Q. Why is there a need for healing-centered schools?

Feldkamp: Our focus is on public schools in the Bronx, but the model could be applied citywide. Students in the Bronx are impacted by a variety of traumas. That can include traumas at home, but a lot of the trauma that impacts families is systemic. In our community sessions, people discussed lack of consistent access to housing and food, over-policing and surveillance by ACS. They also discussed trauma experienced in schools — harsh environments where students are punished and aren’t reflected by the curriculum or the folks teaching them.

Consistent exposure to trauma and toxic stress impacts learning and social and emotional development. When schools don’t take steps to correct how they interact with students impacted by systemic trauma, they can make it worse. We need to correct the role that schools have historically played in harming students, parents and caregivers, as well as teachers who experience vicarious trauma.

Nelson Mar: Healing-centered schools are more necessary now than ever, with every student and staff member dealing with the collective trauma of the pandemic and the fight for racial justice. I doubt there is anyone who has not seen images of Black and brown people being brutalized by law enforcement. School environments need to support children in coming together to heal.

Q. What was the process for developing the recommendations?

Feldkamp: In 2018, we formed a group of parents, advocates and mental health providers.  Since then, students and educators joined our group. We did research to understand how trauma impacts learning and about existing models of trauma-informed schools. We found that existing models focus on interpersonal trauma and traditional conceptions of trauma. They don’t account for the systemic trauma and oppression students in the Bronx experience. We held community listening sessions about changes people want to see in their schools and traumas that impact their school communities. That research and feedback went into the Roadmap and recommendations.

Harris: The Roadmap provides a framework and step-by-step process for schools to build support within the school community. It explains the importance of a Transformation Team within the school, racial justice and culturally responsive education, bringing everyone to the table and listening to our youth and community.

We work with schools to reach out to families and communities. We continue to hold town halls and Zoom meetings to talk about what schools are doing and what we want them to do. We want parents to understand healing-centered schools. We discuss questions, assist parents with resources and support them in working collaboratively with schools.

We also reached out to executive superintendents, superintendents and principals about the Roadmap. We recognize the importance of getting buy in from school leadership, because implementing meaningful change requires time and training that staff only have if “higher ups” support it.

Mar: We also engaged with school leadership within the Bronx and central offices of the DOE. We reached out to the United Federation of Teachers, Principals Union and The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. Changes need to come from all sides for it to work.

Q. How will your recommendations help parents?

Harris: The Roadmap shows the importance of including families, valuing parents and building relationships. It is important for children to see their parents included, accepted and respected. If families are not engaged and aware of restorative justice approaches practiced at school, they aren’t able to continue those approaches at home.

Feldkamp: Often, even if schools welcome students, they don’t welcome parents. They leave caregivers out of decision making and have harmful structures in place. Many folks told us about retaliatory calls to the State Central Register (SCR) and misunderstanding of mandated reporting obligations. We discussed Rise’s recommendations to reduce overreporting by schools, built them into the Roadmap and included them in its resources section.

One of our recommendations is that schools look at whether they make a lot of calls to the SCR and, if so, to explore why. How are you failing to support families or misunderstanding your obligations? We recommend that schools improve staff training to avoid overreporting and look at the role of bias in reports.

Q. How can focusing on healing help families during the pandemic?

Harris: We are all going through a lot and are unsure of how to navigate it. We are all experiencing loss. We cannot treat the school year as business as usual. It’s important for us to be in this moment collectively with love, support and empathy.

Schools have the opportunity to shift their culture by allowing educators to engage students, instead of sticking to a rigorous curriculum. We will see the results in academics if we focus on supporting each other. 

Feldkamp: This year, DOE said that the return to school will focus on healing, but that hasn’t been the case in every school. The DOE released the Bridge to School Plan to support schools in taking a more social-emotional approach and it includes our Roadmap. Unfortunately, because of the stress on schools, many didn’t have the opportunity to use it.

Two tools from our Roadmap are particularly important during the pandemic. One is staff wellness. Staff get a lot of confusing information and feel frightened about returning to school buildings. Staff cannot care for students if their well being is not cared for. Investing in staff wellness is a healing-centered approach that can help.

The second is avoiding punitive and zero tolerance policies for responding to behavior. We were disheartened that the DOE has continued its citywide behavioral expectations and discipline code. We are hearing reports about zero tolerance with Zoom classrooms and students having to use the chat or camera in a particular way. Instead, we need to ask students about the support they need and understand that students are going to engage in learning in different ways.

Q. Is there any data on the impact of healing-centered schools?

Feldkamp: None of the other models are the exact approach we’ve taken, but some use practices that we’re advocating for, so their outcomes are relevant.

Schenectady, NY made the school district“trauma sensitive” and saw a decrease in suspensions and violent incidents after they removed School Safety Agents from schools. This shows that police in schools do not keep students safe and we can build safe environments without them. They also saw an increase in graduation rates among students who had been suspended and an increase in days students attended school.

The H.E.A.R.T.S. Program in San Francisco focused on training educators about how trauma impacts learning and to build skills to respond better to students. In one year, they saw a 40-50% drop off in acting out behaviors.

Massachusetts implemented trauma-informed practices in schools. Their model recognized that the journey would be different for every single school. That’s something we tried to emulate.

Our approach is different. A number of Bronx schools are testing it out, and we plan to evaluate them closely so we can share how implementing these practices shifts a school community.

Q. Can you tell us more about how School Safety Agents (SSAs) are harmful? Without SSAs, will students be safe?

Harris: Think of police — School Safety Agents come from that department, get that type of training and use punitive tactics. They are deeply rooted in a harmful system and structure that we need to dismantle. SSAs are not in place to engage students in healing ways and provide support. They are there to enforce rules. SSAs in schools do more harm than good in poorer communities, specifically Black and brown communities. They punish students more harshly in our communities. We can’t allow that to continue to happen. We need a completely different type of community building.

Mar: Police presence in NYC schools is relatively recent, since 1999. For about 100 years, NYC public schools did not have police. There isn’t a lot of crime to begin with and crime is going down in NYC schools.

Children are impacted by traumatic events, directly or indirectly. If children don’t have ways to work through those experiences, it is more likely they will act out or withdraw. Healing-centered practices make it more likely that children will feel safe and supported and less likely that they will engage in these behaviors. If children engage in actions that violate codes of conduct, there still will be consequences, but not a need for police to enforce discipline.

Feldkamp: Schenectady used two programs to make schools safe without police. They implemented a suspension diversion program to engage students in mental health services instead of suspending them. This program creates long-term support networks for students with unaddressed trauma and behavioral needs.

When they got rid of SSAs, they brought in cultural brokers — elders and people in the community — to defuse conflict. Rather than keeping students out of the classroom, their goal was getting them back into the classroom faster. We’re encouraging these approaches, as well.

Q. How can parents get involved in the movement for healing-centered schools?

Harris: We encourage school Community Education Councils, PTAs and Parent Associations to email us to work together. They can also connect with us on Twitter @HealBxSchools.

Individuals and organizations can sign a call to action for the NYC Department of Education to develop and fund culturally responsive, healing-centered, social-emotional learning that is rooted in restorative practice and positive youth development with a focus on mental health.

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