Report Draws Attention of Massachusetts Top Education Leaders

Post Date: October 19, 2005

The clinical casework of students in Harvard Law School’s Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative is the foundation of a landmark new report called Helping Traumatized Children Learn. The report documents how trauma from exposure to violence—particularly family violence—can be the underlying cause of many learning and behavior problems that children exhibit in the classroom.

The true-life stories that form the groundwork for the report’s analysis and conclusions come from actual children whom HLS students at the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center have represented in special education and discipline proceedings. The aim of the report is to encourage schools to intervene early to provide both school-wide and individual supports to traumatized students so that they can avoid school failure and/or involvement with the juvenile delinquency system.

Third-year law student Marisa Rolland is currently representing a 5th grader in Boston who observed her older brother’s murder on a neighborhood playground. The child’s resulting depression and anxiety disorder made it difficult for her to focus her attention and control her behavior in the classroom. Rolland’s advocacy has centered on getting the girl’s school to understand how her challenging behaviors are actually connected to her traumatic experience.

“It is so exciting to see the work that I am doing on this case actually influencing education policy at the state level,” said Rolland. “It is heartening to know that what I am learning from my client’s experience can help generate real tools and strategies for teachers to employ in the classroom.”

In addition to translating the research on trauma into language that is relevant to educators, the report also provides a flexible framework of strategies that schools can use to become trauma-sensitive environments. The report concludes with a series of policy recommendations for the state’s educational leaders, encouraging them to devote resources to teacher training and increased access to mental health consultants for schools.

A second-year HLS student, Rachel Wainer, is currently representing a student who was physically abused at the age of 3 months. While the Department of Social Services investigated the incident, the infant was kept in the hosptial and separated from both parents for weeks. According to Wainer, this experience has reverberated throughout his subsequent school experiences, creating difficulties with trust and fearfulness at school.

“It has been eye-opening to see how traumatic experiences—even those that occur during infancy—can impact how we learn,” said Wainer. “Without understanding the root causes of our client’s behavioral and educational issues, we cannot hope to find solutions that can ultimately stop the cycle of school failure for these children.”

Helping Traumatized Children Learn will be released to the public at a press conference today at the Juniper Hill Elementary School in Framingham, Mass. The Framingham Public Schools are hosting the event and currently implementing the strategies outlined in the report across its entire school district. Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David Driscoll has endorsed the report and will attend the press conference to speak about the issue of trauma and learning.

Harvard Law Professor Martha Minow has called Helping Traumatized Children Learn a major milestone in child advocacy. The report has also been endorsed by Harry Spence, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services; Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents; and Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative is a partnership between Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a non-profit children’s rights organization, and the law school’s Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center. It serves as a clinical placement for law students interested in child advocacy and education law. Students enrolled in TLPI have the chance to represent real clients in special education proceedings in the Boston Public Schools and conduct education policy work at the state level in Massachusetts/

Students who are interested in participating in the TLPI clinic can contact Director Susan Cole at 617-390-2737 or Skadden Fellow Mike Gregory at 617-390-2550.