When the gavel sounded on the 2019 legislative session, advocates across the state celebrated the passage of Senate Bill 1, the School Safety and Resiliency Act. This bipartisan effort brought together lawmakers, behavioral health experts, and school administrators to ensure all students can learn in a safe and supportive school environment. While the bill encompassed multiple areas of school safety, including requiring procedures and oversight to strengthen school security if a threat occurs, it also required all public schools adopt a trauma-informed approach.

Trauma is an emotional response to an event that a person finds highly stressful. Trauma can be acute, meaning it is a result of a single, highly stressful event, or chronic, resulting from exposure to repeated and prolonged stressful events.

One requirement of the School Safety and Resiliency Act was for school districts to create a plan for implementing trauma-informed approaches, to be approved by local Boards of Education by July 1, 2021. As required by statute, this plan is to include, but is not limited to:

  • Increasing trauma-informed awareness within the school community
  • Assessing the school climate, including inclusiveness and respect for diversity
  • Adopting trauma-informed discipline policies
  • Collaborating with local, county, and state law enforcement for notification of when a student has witnessed or been exposed to trauma
  • Providing services and programs designed to reduce the negative impact of trauma, supporting critical learning, and fostering a positive and safe school environment for every student

While the various requirements of the School Safety and Resiliency Act have already brought about positive change in school environments regarding the physical safety and well-being of students, the trauma-informed plans are an opportunity for districts to make much-needed changes that will foster an environment of mental and emotional safety and well-being.  In addition, districts will create a trauma-informed team to guide implementation of these plans and to identify and assist students impacted by trauma.

As districts are shifting their focus to supporting students who have experienced trauma with trauma-informed practices, there remain a small number of Kentucky school districts that allow the use of corporal punishment, or physical force. During the 2019-2020 school year, 11 districts reported using corporal punishment against students a total of 142 times.

Districts that utilize such practices are far from trauma-informed. Every incidence of corporal punishment that occurs against a student undermines that student’s sense of safety and belonging in their school environment.  It reinforces using physical aggression as a way to deal with unwanted behavior and leads to an environment that instills fear, anxiety and distrust.

Holding students accountable and improving behavior can be done successfully without the use of physical punishment. Corporal punishment traumatizes kids, especially those who have experienced previous trauma. The immediate and lasting negative impact that repeated exposure to trauma can have on the physical, mental, and emotional health of kids is well-documented. Kentucky is among the top 14 states leading the nation in childhood adversity, with 22 percent of children having experienced two or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

How can we as a state condone adding school-based trauma onto kids already dealing with adversity in their homes?

The creation and implementation of trauma-informed plans are part of the solution. School districts can use this requirement as an opportunity to shift their discipline policies to include those that are developmentally appropriate, utilize restorative practices, and prioritize racial and cultural factors in order to create safe and nurturing learning environments for all students.

Recently on Kentucky Youth Advocates’ Advocate Virtual Forum and Making Kids Count podcast, panelists discussed how school districts are developing their trauma-informed plans, what needs to be included, and how plans will be implemented. Panelists included Dr. Joe Bargione, Bounce Coalition trainer and Executive Committee member; Michael Ford, Superintendent of Russell County Schools; and Dr. Steven Kniffley, Chief Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Spalding University.