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Trauma-Informed School Discipline and Preventing Sexual Assault

Here's why trauma informed schools are an essential to student and staff success:

Today, The White House Council on Women and Girls, the U.S. Department of Education, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and The National Crittenton Foundation are jointly hosting a conference titled Trauma-Informed Approaches in School: Supporting Girls of Color and Rethinking Discipline.

All children deserve to go to schools that support them and allow them to thrive and live up to their potential. School discipline policies, when used appropriately, can help ensure that classrooms are safe and productive places to learn. However, far too many schools have harsh discipline policies that disproportionally punish students of color. Our data show that black boys are most likely to be suspended or expelled than all other children, and that black girls, as a group, are suspended or expelled more frequently than are girls of any other race and also more often than white boys.

This is a tragedy – not just because it’s unfair, but because the disparate treatment of students of color can negatively affect the rest of their lives. We know, for instance, that when girls are suspended, the odds of them having an unplanned pregnancy, dropping out of school, or being caught in the juvenile justice system increase markedly.

Tools exist to help schools create a supportive climate, including policy guidance and resources to help educators and school leaders transition to new practices that foster success for all students and create conditions that improve the likelihood that students will stay engaged and in school.

Many schools are rethinking their discipline policies. Girls, particularly girls of color, have made academic progress in recent years. But, they continue to face educational barriers.

One of those barriers is the unhealed trauma of abuse, neglect, family dysfunction, homelessness, experiences as immigrants, or the absence of a loved one due to incarceration, or death. The unhealed trauma contributes to classroom struggles but often go unnoticed. In fact, we know that each fall some children return to school suffering the effects of toxic stress from events such as neighborhood violence, hunger or severe weather.

If these issues are not understood and addressed, toxic stress can eat away at students’ ability to concentrate on academics. It affects their short-term and even long-term health, and may limit their life chances in other ways. As Dr. Nadine Burke Harris has said, we need to recognize the magnitude of the problem and fashion our response into a movement – aiming for the same track record of success that we’ve achieved for other public health crises in this country.

Part of our work is to realize that, when faced with student behavior that stems from traumatic experiences – and sometimes, even the experiences themselves, such as sex trafficking – society’s response has too often been the criminalization of students. This is particularly true for girls of color. But we also know that with appropriate supports and intervention, all students – including young women of color – can overcome childhood trauma and succeed. 

Unfortunately right now, experts estimate that nationwide, only 100 to 200 schools use trauma-informed approaches. Even fewer have begun to intentionally address race and gender as part of their efforts. With your help, America can do better.   

We all share a commitment to promoting policies and practices that support the needs and potential of underserved populations, including marginalized girls, young women, and their families. Today’s convening will help participants focus on addressing one such barrier: improving school systems’ approach to serving girls of color who have experienced trauma. We will bring together educational teams from 15 states and 23 districts, as well as key researchers and experts in this topic, and nonprofit partners who have demonstrated a strong commitment to improving supports and outcomes for this vulnerable population. 

Additionally, one of the traumas that should be considered when addressing supportive school discipline, is the issue of sexual misconduct. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 8 percent, or an estimated 10 million girls, experienced rape or attempted rape during their youth.[1] In addition, nearly half of bisexual women (46.1%) have been raped in their lifetime—and almost half of those women (48.2%) were first raped between the ages of 11 and 17 years. These alarming statistics indicate to us how important it is for educators to have the tools they need to respond appropriately when various forms of sexual misconduct occur in our K-12 schools.

So today, we are extremely proud to announce the results of our collaborative efforts to address this issue. We are releasing an interactive, online toolkit for teachers, administrators, and others called, Safe Place to Learn: Prevent, Intercede, and Respond to Sexual Harassment of K-12 Students.

In developing this toolkit, we consulted with experts in the education and sexual assault fields, and their feedback is reflected throughout. We heard loud and clear from them that prevention needs to start early if we want to eliminate sexual assault among college-age students and beyond. This toolkit contains guidance, e-learning training modules, and resources to support current and ongoing conversations and efforts to prevent bullying, sexual harassment and violence, and provide safe, supportive learning environments for all students.

In conjunction with the Toolkit, today the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault will release a companion document called Considerations for School District Sexual Misconduct Policies.  The Task Force hopes that this new tool will be particularly helpful for K-12 districts to consider when drafting sexual misconduct policies as part of their overall response to sexual misconduct. It focuses on reporting options, support services for victims, definitions, confidentiality, and the grievance process and links to valuable resources.

We hope school districts continue to work together long after this convening to share best practices about school discipline, trauma-informed education, and safe school climates, to ensure that all our students are able to thrive in school and finish their educations.


Catherine Lhamon is the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

[1] Adult women and men reported on their sexual violence experiences, including those that occurred in youth (before the age of 18) on the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.