A Traumatic Failure: DC Public Schools Neglect Mental Health


“I have to meet this guy and have sex with him. If I don’t, then he and his friends are going to rape my little sister,” a student at Frank Ballou High School in Ward 8’s Congress Heights told her teacher. The teacher was trying to persuade her to stay after school, so he could help her improve her grades.

“She said that effortlessly, without any real emotion,” recalled the teacher, who requested anonymity. There wasn’t any reason to disbelieve her. “I wanted to call the police [but] she was worried about repercussions for her. So, I didn’t do anything.”

Inside Ballou’s gleaming $140 million structure, there are hundreds of stories from students who could be modern-day models for Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Situated among private homes and rental apartments, Ballou’s ecosystem is marked by stunning toxicity: high poverty, double-digit unemployment, gun violence, domestic violence and child neglect.

“Wearing a uniform is probably the best attempt at normalizing the environment for them; outside of that, none of the students has normal childhoods,” the teacher observed. “They live by trauma. There is nobody in their world to help them process all of that.”

Ballou is no outlier. It is exemplar, an illustrative tale about the effects of unresolved childhood trauma on DC’s public schools and how education leaders, government officials, parents and students are grappling with associated challenges.

(For more, see Part 1 of this series at www.hillrag.com/2018/12/03/the-cost-of-juvenile-trauma.)

Two documents – an independent investigative report and a student survey – underscore the similarities while exposing the ties that bind students and the issue of trauma without regard to race, class or geography.

Alvarez & Marsal (A&M) was hired in 2018 by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to examine allegations that most students who graduated from Ballou in 2017 had not met established attendance and academic requirements.

A&M found that 34 percent of the entire citywide 2017 graduating class of 2,758 students had, in fact, received diplomas in violation of mandatory attendance and academic rules. The consulting team also made this confession: “DCPS [DC Public Schools] students face many challenges in maintaining regular attendance … including high rates of poverty, homelessness, work and childcare responsibilities, interaction with the court system, and many others.” The team acknowledged that while the challenges “contribute to absenteeism in DCPS” they were not factored into the analysis.

The other document is “The Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 2017,” which was completed voluntarily and anonymously by more than 16,000 District middle school and high school students. Many respondents – 11 percent of Hispanic, nearly 9 percent of black, 8.3 percent of Asian and 4.5 percent of white high schoolers – admitted they had missed school at least one or more days prior to the survey. The unanimous reason: they felt unsafe.

Equally troubling, 11.8 percent of high school males and 19.1 percent of females thought of killing themselves. “High school females were more likely than males to feel so sad or hopeless every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities, at a rate of 33.1 percent to 20.8 percent,” according to the survey.

Digging Deeper
Janice, a petite and reserved 18-year-old who graduated high school in 2018, has known the kind of depression captured in the youth survey. As we spoke during a recent interview, her low self-esteem was palpable, and her voice was laced with pain. “It started in elementary school when my best friend passed away. We were in the second grade; she had asthma.”

“In middle school the boys started teasing and bullying me because I was skinny,” Janice explained.

Experiencing the trauma of parental abandonment by the absence of her father, she began looking for love in all the wrong places. She subjected herself to abusive relationships. “Emotional and verbal abuse can be worse than physical. I went through rage and wanting to compromise with [that] person,” she said. “It was terrible. It was very stressful.”

Troubling romantic relationships and toxic stress at home caused her grades to plummet. With a 2.69 grade point, she was rejected by the college of her choice. These days, she attends classes at a local university, hoping to reset her academic career.

“People talk about trauma, but they don’t go deep enough. The services don’t go to the core; it’s [mostly] on the surface,” said Marco Clark, founder and chief executive officer of Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts. “Also, we have to address the long-range impact. We can’t stop at 18 years old. The trauma is still there.”

Judith Sandalow, executive director of the DC Children’s Law Center, wrote in a 2015 white paper, “Children with traumatic histories are more likely to be referred for special education, have higher rates of school discipline referrals and suspensions, lower test scores and grades and are less likely to graduate.” She has been on a crusade ever since, pushing for more trauma-informed schools.

Citywide, more than 66 percent of public-school students – traditional or charter – who took the English Language Arts portion of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) standardized test in 2018 scored below proficient, according to OSSE. More than 70 percent of the students scored below proficient in math.

“In a classroom setting, our systems are too often set up to punish children for not being able to stay focused in classroom and adhere to behavioral standards,” said Rose Shelton, a therapist who has worked with adults and children. “For children dealing with trauma or a mental health disorder, this is especially difficult.”

Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the DC Department of Health and interim director of the DC Department of Behavioral Health (DBH), didn’t disagree. “Children begin to internalize things that happen on the outside of school and it affects their ability to learn.” She continued, “If those things are happening repeatedly and the child is in a constant state of agitation where they cannot concentrate, they cannot self-regulate, those issues need to be addressed because the child is in a state where they are never able to fully engage in their educational attainment.”

Failed District Policies
Despite that compatibility in assessing the problem, there is a clear line of demarcation. Advocates, students, parents and education leaders have argued that trauma among the city’s children and youth has reached epidemic level; swift and comprehensive action is needed. The government has not provided it, however.

“One in six District youth suffer from emotional, behavioral, or developmental conditions,” the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Jarred Bowman wrote in an August 2018 report. “Yet only one-third of DCPS and public charter schools have full-time mental health clinicians, despite the goal that all schools be staffed with at least one by the 2016-2017 school year.”

That goal was established in the South Capitol Street Memorial Amendment Act of 2012, which was passed by the DC Council in response to one of the deadliest mass shootings in DC. The killing spree on South Capitol Street was triggered by a missing bracelet that the owner believed stolen. As retaliation, he gathered his five-member posse and on March 30, 2010, opened fire on a crowd of people just returning from a funeral. Four people were killed in that drive-by, including 16-year-old Brishell Jones.

David Catania, then an at-large councilmember, said that while working on the legislation with Nardyne Jeffries – Jones’s mother – they realized “overwhelming evidence pointed to unmet behavioral health needs” as “one of the most significant contributors to later delinquency and antisocial or violent behavior.” Consequently, the law mapped a course of action, mandating that DBH “implement a program to inform teachers, principals and staff at child development facilities of common signals exhibited by youth with unmet behavioral health needs.”

It further required the mayor to submit a “comprehensive plan” for the expansion of early childhood and school-based behavioral health programs and services by the 2016-17 school year. The executive was to “establish a strategy to enhance behavioral health services” in all public schools and public charter schools, including programs that provided “interventions for families of students with behavioral health needs; reduce aggressive and impulsive behavior; and promote social and emotional competency in students.”

The law’s timeframe required that by the 2014-15 school year, mental health services would be available to 50 percent of all traditional and charter school students. By the 2016-17 school year, mental health services were to be universally available in all public schools.

Eight years after that bloody March day on South Capitol Street and six years after passage of the legislation, DC still has not fully implemented the law. More egregious, the murders of young people have continued. 

The Fix Is Not In
Multiple Bowser administration officials have defended the city’s actions. “Every DC public school has mental health services through the social workers and psychologists that are assigned. [With] the charter schools, it varies,” stated Dr. Tanya Royster, then director of DBH. “School-based mental health actually began 17 years ago. It’s been a very slow growth, but growth still.”

Dr. Nesbitt, who temporarily assumed direction of DBH on Nov. 30, didn’t stray far from that script. “The executive branch and the legislative branch are committed to acting quickly in the best interest of our children.” She said that over the past several years the administration has been “reimagining” in-school health programs and considering how to accelerate mental health services. The mayor’s task force on mental health calculated that at the rate the District was proceeding, “It would take us a decade or more to get resources in the schools.”

Consequently, the government decided to ramp up services, beginning this year. The mayor and council have set aside $3 million for a three-year expansion of in-school mental health services that would include screening and assessment “across the spectrum,” early intervention to prevent a child from possibly requiring a higher level of services and treatment where appropriate. Those services would be provided by a network of nonprofit community-based organizations and private-practice providers. The specific scope and design could vary from school to school and would be determined by a team of mental health experts working collaboratively with school-based leaders, teachers and parents in what is being called a community of practice. Schools would be added to the program in phases. The first year there would be only about 52 institutions considered the neediest that would be in the program.

That means essentially it would take another three years before the 2012 South Capitol Street Memorial Act is fully implemented. Dr. Nesbitt cautioned that people should not complain because without this plan it likely would take “a decade using the old model” to address the mental health needs of children.

At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who chairs the DC Council’s Committee on Education and Libraries, has blasted the administration’s approach. In a letter dated Nov. 29, he wrote that eight months after receiving the March 2018 final report of a mental health task force, “A comprehensive needs assessment has still not been completed, and it seems the department is even less clear about how to implement this program with fidelity.”

Dr. Nesbitt said that after conducting a review the administration realized it needed 48 new clinicians, not 33 as originally projected. She said the funds will be in place to cover the additional personnel. “We won’t be pushing the program off for another year or anything like that.”

That assurance has brought little comfort to many advocates, parents and others concerned about trauma and its growing effect on the academic success of the city’s children. “I am not one for window dressing. The first step toward solving this is to acknowledge we are not doing enough,” said Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union.

Questions also have been raised about placing decisions in the hands of administrators, principals and teachers, many of whom have not received appropriate training. And then there is the issue of legislation the council may pass that competes with trauma reduction efforts. Davis is most concerned about the Fair Access to Schools Act. Approved by the legislature in July 2018, the law requires the establishment of in-school suspension policies and programs aimed at reducing the number of students expelled from school. Requiring disruptive students to be retained in class could hasten teacher burnout, asserted Davis, noting that DC has one of the highest teacher turnover rates.

Mary Levy, a recognized expert on DCPS, recently conducted a study at the behest of the State Board of Education on teacher turnover over three and five-year periods. She found that during a five-year period, the city’s traditional public schools lost 70 percent of their teaching staff. Most neighborhood high schools lost 80 percent or more of their staff within five years. Ballou, for example, witnessed a five-year turnover rate of 83 percent.

Davis argued that teachers were not receiving adequate professional development to deal with the myriad issues that had been thrust upon them. OSSE has established an online training program that focuses on creating trauma-informed schools. It’s unclear, however, whether the course is mandatory. State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. DCPS Interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander initially agreed to an interview but never provided a date and time for the conversation.

A Contagion?
Insufficient in-school mental health resources and inadequately trained teachers could exacerbate the problem, creating an environment where traumatized children affect other students and the academic success of those students. Shelton, an African-American therapist and mother of twin daughters who were enrolled in a DC charter school, provided some insight into that dynamic.

Shelton told me that one of her daughters seemed to be adjusting to the school environment. The other had “checked out” and was “begging me to home-school her.”

“I didn’t know what was going on,” continued Shelton. She visited her daughter’s class and saw students sitting on the carpet most of the day. “There was a lot of pushing information and regurgitating information. When a kid would get in trouble, [my daughter] would get this anxiety on her face.” She talked with the teacher.

Meanwhile, school officials informed her that they wanted to hold her other daughter back a grade. Shelton was shocked. “I asked for an assessment.” Officials refused. Shelton pushed back. As the fight continued, she worried that delays could make matters worse. She had both her children assessed privately.

“They were fine,” but her apprehension about the school environment heightened. She visited more frequently. “I started seeing a level of fear that was being created in the school and in the classroom.” She transferred her children to a traditional public school.

“Sometimes children are being traumatized in the classroom by a teacher,” added Shelton, who has been advocating through Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE) for more in-school mental health counselors, comparable to academic counselors.

“We need to do a deeper dive to understand how students who experience trauma are affecting teachers who teach them,” added Davis. “We teach students who come to us who are traumatized, and teachers are also traumatized.”

The mayor’s mental health expansion program didn’t just happen because health professionals wanted to do something different, said Dr. Nesbitt. “It was born out of the need that school leadership and education leaders want to have better things in place.”

There is one problem. Not every school will get those better things this year.


Jonetta Rose Barras is a DC-based freelance journalist. This series was produced as part of a University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism Fellowship with a grant from the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being.