Exploring Educational Trauma: The Pain of Learning in 20th Century Schools

08/21/2013 05:51 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2013
  • Lee-Anne Gray Psy.D President & Chief Executive Officer, The Connect Group, Co-Founder The Connect Group School, EMDR Certified Clinical Psychologist, TEDx Organizer.

On January 19, 2011 in Los Angeles my two mile commute home from work took 45 minutes. The events in my community that caused gridlock that day are barely noticeable in the landscape of educational history. For me, it changed the way I looked at everything related to education. It was the first time I really understood the many layers of and developed the idea of educational trauma.

The cause of my delayed commute was Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Police Officer Jeff Stenroos accidently shooting himself in Woodland Hills, Ca. There was utter chaos and lockdown of 9,000 people across nine schools. Students weren't allowed to use restrooms during the lockdown so they urinated in buckets. Parents were panicked because they couldn't remove their children from school for soccer and/or administer their afternoon medications. LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines made a comment about how parents didn't understand lockdown procedures. Why should they? Schools are not military training grounds, nor correctional facilities.

It was about 7p.m. when the lockdown ended. It settled down when Officer Stenroos admitted there wasn't a shooter, but that his wound was accidently self-inflicted. It is my belief that this whole event metastasized because the educational system was already caught in a cycle of trauma. The lockdown appeared to be an overreaction to the April 1999 events in Columbine. The collective consciousness never forgot what happened. So, whenever the thought of school shooting occurs, the response is severe. This type of fear-based reaction to gun violence in school makes sense, but why is it occurring in the first place? And why did Officer Stenroos feel that lying about an assailant was the best approach? Surely, he must have understood the widespread hysteria his lie would generate.

From early laws in the 70's that promoted segregation of students to the epidemic that is bullying, we can see incidents of trauma everywhere in education. Educational Trauma is defined as the inadvertent perpetration and perpetuation of victimization by educational systems against consumers and producers of the system. Victims of educational trauma may include: children, adolescents, and adults interacting the educational system. This type of trauma can also impact communities spreading a sense of helplessness and feelings of dis-empowerment. The situation in education may sound dire and grim but the fact that our nation is currently identifying the trends in education that do/don't work, there is hope that we are collectively attempting to work out a very large problem.

The cycle of educational trauma has many points at which we can see the perpetuation of major trauma at a systemic level. Between 1971 and 1974, 30 states passed special education laws, many of which mandated screening the entire school populations for defective vision and hearing, for malnutrition, dental concerns, "oedipal conflicts," "ego disturbances," normalcy in impulse control, withdrawal, and social behavior. This information was pooled in data banks used by school districts to inform program and policy development. Education practices in the early 70's then, set the stage for some consumers of the system to be identified based on their deficits and weaknesses. Some of those concerns are no longer even considered problems. Essentially, the educational system was expected to teach students what they needed to know as adults, but also established itself as a nationwide vehicle for segregating students according to deficits and perceived problems. Eventually, strategies for managing these issues began to include treatment with harmful substances. The use of stimulants for mind control plays a big role in educational trauma.

In his 1998 book, Talking Back to Ritalin: What Doctors Aren't Telling you About Stimulants for Children, Peter Breggin, MD described the use of ritalin in schools as commonplace as the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1996, the International Narcotics Control Board reported that 20 percent of students were taking stimulant medication in some schools. With 85 percent of teachers having attended at least one workshop on ADHD, it was an integral part of teacher training. Professional advocates of ADHD/Ritalin were the workshops presenters. School guidance counselors were trained to direct and advise the parents toward further evaluation.

This system of sending students with inattention and/or hyperactivity to pediatricians for stimulant medication was not left to teachers and pediatricians alone. Experts like Barbara Ingersoll, PhD, and Sam Goldstein, PhD are two well-respected experts in ADD/ADHD. They are also members of the professional advisory board of CHAAD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders) and national voices on this topic. Russell A. Barkley, PhD is an internationally renowned expert on ADHD. In 2007, he declared that 24 percent of his income came from Eli Lily Co., Shire, and Novartic, the makers of Strattera, Vyvanse, and Ritalin, respectively. This type of alliance leads me to seriously question the experts called in to validate this phenomenon and treatment.

I'll argue that ADD/ADHD are not disorders of the brain, but rather a disorder of the educational system. Not only are students expected to sit in seats, like veal trapped in cages, but the joys of childhood like art, music, libraries, and PE have been eliminated. The system entrusted with teaching students important knowledge and skills is modeled after industrial era assembly line models, and also became a gateway for diagnosing and treating children with attentional disturbances. We allowed the teachers of our students to select those that were not conforming to current teaching practices and determine that medical treatment was a primary approach. Personally, I believe this has had the same effect as bullying.

In 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that Anna Feig, the principal of Los Angeles Unified School District Elementary School used pressure tactics to demand that students be medicated with stimulant medication to treat attentional difficulties. As it turns out, Ms. Feig's husband was a physician at Cedars Sinai Hospital, in Los Angeles. She leveraged her relationship with him as a means of pressuring parents. After all, this was no ordinary principal; she was the wife of a prominent pediatrician! This is but one example of the degree of pressure placed upon parents by teachers to offer medicines, rather than alternative methods of treatment and education, when teaching best practices were insufficient. This is also an example of bullying between school administration, teachers, and parents.

In 2001, Francine Shapiro, PhD published EMDR: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures. According to Shapiro, the brain's information processing system can get blocked or imbalanced by the impact of trauma. Maladaptive responses to present day circumstances occur when the information processing system is trying to resolve old trauma. Think of it like a computer that can only perform one program at a time. If the information processing system in the brain is stuck on a trauma, it will react to the present as if the individual is in the past, re-experiencing the trauma all over again.

Traumatized individuals are frozen in the past, unable to freely experience the present, as it is. Shapiro suggests that trauma prevents the brain from letting go of the maladaptive ideas. Shapiro explains that the brain is like a train that stops at different stations to deliver and pick up passengers. In a healthy system, the information that should remain, remains, and the information that is maladaptive should be discarded. In a traumatized system, the ideas, cognitions, values, emotions, and bodily sensations of the past are experienced in the here and now, as if fully real. And they influence choice. When we apply Shapiro's model to education, we begin to see how the educational system and its participants are impacted by ages of institutionalized trauma. Frozen in the movie of the past, the current characters of education are literally playing out an unconscious role. Many actors don't think about what they are teaching, how the policies and curricula impact students, or even if there are alternatives. It is as if the script of the past keeps replaying. The unfortunate consequence of this is that a traumatized system and set of individuals are perpetrating traumatic experiences in education without even knowing it.

Until we recognize the depth of pain our current educational system is perpetuating, I fear true educational restructuring will not take place. This is primarily because the train that is modern day education, is stuck. It is not currently assimilating new passengers and information effectively or efficiently enough. Forcing students to participate in educational systems that are archaic and based on irrelevant values is an abuse occurring everyday in schools in America. Students require diverse and individualized curricula that reflect their uniqueness.

Getting back to that day I was stuck in traffic in January 2011. Perhaps, if there were a culture of acceptance around making mistakes, Officer Stenroos wouldn't have felt the need to lie. While the disordered educational system is traumatized, there is innovation happening across the nation particularly in the areas of mindful awareness, cross content curricula, the meaningful integration of technology, global citizenship, individualized curricula, and more. Better systems, strategies, and approaches are emerging and that is a topic I'll explore in future posts. Had Stenroos been employed by a stable and conscious system effectively tracking its own evolution, perhaps it would have supported him in his mistake. Instead, his humiliation and fear set the stage for the whole system to overreact and commit another incident of educational trauma. Education must allow for mistakes and failures.