Arianna Gibson’s preschool teacher lost it at the funeral when she saw the little girl’s unbearably small casket. The principal at Arianna’s school, Libby Elementary, couldn’t stand to see her buried. “Who puts babies in the ground?” Kurt Jones asks.

Jones and his school team struggled to cope with the death of the 6-year-old, who was killed when someone began shooting into the living room at her grandmother’s Englewood home in August 2011. But as much as the Libby staff struggled, they were adults with support systems and stability in their lives. They immediately began to worry about Arianna’s two brothers, 9 and 11, also students at Libby. The boys were sleeping in the room where Arianna was shot.

Given the tragedy, the Libby staff worried that the two boys’ home was consumed with stress and drama.  At the peace vigil in response to Arianna’s murder, one faction of the family walked in front, another in the back. The brothers didn’t need to be around that tension day and night, Jones says.

Arianna was killed the day before school started, so her brothers missed the critical first days of school—the days that would set the tone for the rest of the year. Jones sent a counselor and Arianna’s preschool teacher to the grandmother’s house, where the family was staying, with a stack of bus cards in hand so the children could be brought to school. “The boys needed to be here,” Jones says.

Once the boys were back, everyone made an effort to be available for them. Sometimes, one of the boys would stop by counselor Ingrid Smith’s office, just looking for a little nurturing. “They needed a lot of extra hugs,” Smith says.

A growing body of research points to the lingering effects of trauma on children. When no one helps them to cope with the emotional aftermath, children can become angry, irritable and aggressive in response to the stress of violence, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Traumatized children often lose the ability to concentrate, become withdrawn or act out.

When children are exposed to a lot of trauma, they are highly sensitive, says Michael Wilson, a clinical supervisor at Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network (UCAN), a social welfare agency in Chicago. They can be hyper-sensitive or numb. “The trauma debilitates you,” Wilson says.

Exposure to gun violence is only one type of trauma children are confronted with in tough communities. Counselors say children experience a range of upsetting events, from mothers who die to fathers who go off to prison. One counselor tells the story of two children who witnessed a car crash that killed their friend. The students can’t stop thinking about the cries of the mother, as her dead child was being pulled from the car.

“They think about it when they wake up and when they go to sleep,” says Jorge Santaella, a counselor for Brighton Park Neighborhood Council who works at Shields Elementary School in Pilsen.

In Chicago schools located in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods, the problem is especially acute. Results from the Chicago Youth Development Study showed 80 percent of inner-city teen boys reported exposure to violence. Of children exposed to violence, more than 40 percent show symptoms of post-traumatic stress, according to the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

Meanwhile, a survey last year by the nonprofit group Communities in Schools of Chicago found that mental health services ranked as a top need among 105 principals whose schools are part of the non-profit’s network.

*          *          *

CEO Jean-Claude Brizard’s administration believes that, at least to some degree, exposure to violence and other traumatic events causes children to come to school ready to fight and unable to focus on classwork. Peace circles and peer juries may calm the waters on the surface, but increasingly, those who work in schools are coming to the realization that some children need more support.

As part of what the district calls a “holistic approach” to safety and security, CPS has embarked on a massive training of social workers and school-based counselors in how to conduct group therapy for children who have experienced trauma. The therapy program is called Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools, known as CBITS (pronounced “see-bits”). The approach was developed by the RAND Corp. for children in Los Angeles who were exposed to violence and was found to be effective with children who lived through Hurricane Katrina.

Through CBITS, students learn how to tune into their feelings and realize that their reactions are normal.

Eventually, CPS officials want to see trauma therapy used widely, believing it will help curb behavior problems, reduce suspensions and expulsions and ultimately, raise achievement.

But money for bringing trauma therapy to schools is in short supply. CPS has no plan to add extra personnel in schools to lead the groups. Instead, principals—who will have more discretion over their budget this year—are being told to consider spending some of the money on additional counselors or social workers.

If this year is predictive of what is to come, without dedicated staff and a clear directive, the district’s effort is likely to be scattershot.  Only about 13 percent of the 205 social workers, psychologists and school-based counselors who were trained in CBITS have gotten groups going, according to CPS.

“We try to help them with whatever obstacles they encounter,” says Jennifer Loudon, the director of Youth Development and Positive Behavior Supports.

Still, Barbara Shaw, executive director of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, applauds CPS leadership for recognizing the role of trauma in the lives of children. Just doing that makes the district a leader, she says.

Counselors working at community-based agencies say they are relieved to see some principals taking the issue of trauma seriously. “It is like there’s been an alarm set off,” says Denise Gray-Bunkley, UCAN’s director of Clinical and Counseling Services.

But in addition to the lack of clinical staff in schools, other barriers remain. Students in poor communities are highly mobile, making it tough to do ongoing counseling.  Some school staff and families are reluctant to embrace group therapy. Counselors say that even when they are gung-ho, families won’t sign consent forms and teachers don’t want students pulled from class.

Some parents feel that suggesting therapy is equivalent to suggesting something is wrong with their child, Gray-Bunkley says.

Libby Elementary illustrates how these barriers play out in real life. The social worker is at the school only two days a week and, like other CPS social workers, fills most of her time working with students who have special needs. The guidance counselor works mainly on test administration and special education case management. Libby has no trauma group.

Jones says the school tries to help students by being nurturing and talking with them to resolve anger and conflict. Jones says he can empathize with his students—when he was growing up, his teenaged brother was killed. 

After Arianna Gibson’s murder, the school was briefly a haven for Arianna’s brothers. But two months after Arianna’s death, the family moved and the two boys transferred.

Even if Libby had an active CBITS group, the move would have scuttled a chance for the boys to participate.

Students are not supposed to take part in the trauma group therapy until at least three months after an event, because experts in CBITS say that children need some time to process a tragedy before participating in group therapy.

“We begged them to stay,” Jones says, closing his eyes. “We don’t know where they are. Their new school won’t know what they’ve been through.”

*          *          *

Like so many schools in rough Chicago communities, a web of violence seems to surround Morrill Elementary. In early April, violence came to the school’s door, almost literally: A 7- year-old was wounded by random gunfire on the porch of the house across the street from the old brick school.

Principal Michael Beyer says he went to the house the next day and another child was outside playing, just steps away from a dried blood stain.

The shooting victim was supposed to return to school two weeks later, but the girl was afraid to go outside, so the counselor arranged to have someone cross the street with the child and bring her into the building.

Still, the school found it hard to figure out exactly how else to respond to the incident. The girl had just transferred into the school two weeks before, and few students even knew her.

When asked if they wanted to talk about the incident with a counselor, no students took the opportunity. At a community meeting, parents and residents said only that they wanted more security around the school. Beyer says he renewed his request for more cameras, but high schools have first priority. Meanwhile, the anti-violence group CeaseFire convinced Beyer to open up the gym in the evening for teenagers.

Beyer, who came to the school last August, has sought out ways to give students an outlet to talk about what is happening in their lives. He brought in the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation, an organization that is part of Roosevelt University, to run peace circles so students could talk about and resolve conflict. The Mansfield Institute brought in student counselors from Roosevelt to run small groups for students, and also stationed a VISTA volunteer at the school to coordinate services.

Beyer’s social worker also took advantage of an Illinois Violence Prevention Authority program that pays for a school-based counselor two days a week. (The program is offered in a handful of schools in 18 Chicago neighborhoods.)

But getting children the right therapeutic help is not easy.

One day in mid-April, in a small room, the eyes of four adults are bearing down on Nathan, a chubby 3rd-grader with pointy ears who inexplicably began thrashing his friend in the bathroom. Usually, peace circles involve more than one student, but Nathan’s teacher sent him alone. (Note: For privacy reasons, Nathan’s real name is not being used.)

All peace circles open up with an ice-breaker. At Morrill, students choose an object from a basket. Nathan picks a sponge shaped as the letter “N”. He is supposed say why he picked the object, but refuses at first, shrugging his shoulders. Eventually, he explains that he picked the sponge because his name starts with that letter.

Those in the group then take turns talking about what upsets them. Nancy Michaels, associate director of the Mansfield Institute, says she gets upset when people judge her.

Nathan stares at the floor, then the wall, then the ceiling. When he gets a turn, he says, “I get upset when people talk about my mom. I get upset especially because she’s dead. That is why I get angry.”

“I would get upset too,” says Michaels, sharing that her mother died also. “It would be a challenge to figure out the best way to react.”

But peace circles are only designed to give students a better way to deal with conflict, not dig too deep into traumatic events. Greg Fuller, a Roosevelt student, tells Nathan that he should not respond by hitting. “If you can’t ignore it, then you have to figure out something else to do,” Fuller says.

Nathan says he knows he should tell the teacher, and try to walk it off when he feels anger rising inside of him. He seems relieved when Michaels says she is going to take him back to class, pull the classmate he hit into the hallway and have Nathan apologize. If the conflict isn’t resolved, Nathan says he is sure to be beaten up after school by the classmate’s older brother.

Afterward, Michaels says Nathan seemed to be saying what everyone wanted to hear. “He has heard it before,” Michaels says.

Fuller, who volunteers in the classroom, notes that Nathan is being raised by his father, who doesn’t seem to be able or willing to deal with the boy’s emotional issues.

*          *          *

Annie Kawalski, a Morrill social worker, knows Nathan well. She says she has explained to his father the adverse effects of Nathan’s behavior on his learning, and suggested that he consult a mental health professional. But the father has not followed through.

Kawalski and Morill’s school-based counselor were trained in CBITS, which would likely help Nathan. But Kawalski hasn’t been able to get a trauma group up and running. Like other CPS social workers, she must spend the bulk of her time working with special education students, and Kawalski says she doesn’t always know which of the other students are dealing with tough emotional issues. 

The students Kawalski suspects might benefit from therapy are different age ranges. “You can’t put a 3rd -grader in the same group with an 8th -grader,” she says.

Though some special education students could be part of group therapy, many counselors and social workers have found that it is difficult to conduct sessions that meet the needs of both special education and general education students.

At the same time, Kawalski says working with students who aren’t in special education is not at the top of her priority list. She rolls her eyes at the thought of CPS officials now pushing that approach. 

Michael Kelly, an assistant professor of social work at Loyola University, says the way CPS manages social workers—unlike districts elsewhere, in Illinois and other states—makes it difficult to launch mental health programs. CPS hires and assigns social workers centrally, and has them report to an administrator in citywide specialized services rather than to the school’s principal.

“Anecdotally, we have seen this to be problematic and to affect the school community in multiple ways,” Kelly says. “They are sent willy-nilly to schools…. It affects their ability to do anything else.”

*          *          *

With limited budgets, many principals look to outside agencies for mental health partnerships. Some of those partnerships have been done through formal agreements, but often a principal or a social worker will bring in an organization to do some work without any contract or formal understanding, Kelly says.

In 2010, Kelly authored a study on partnerships between Illinois schools and outside mental health agencies. “People are out there just trying to get things done,” he says.

CPS now wants to bring some order to these relationships. For one, the administration wants the community-based organizations that send social workers to schools to use CBITS, Anger Coping or Think First. Anger Coping and Think First are group therapy programs for students who are having trouble controlling their anger and can be used for elementary and high school students. Loudon says the programs have been shown to be effective.

CPS recently issued a request for proposals to identify vendors who are trained in these programs and create a preferred vendor list for principals.

This year, the state’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative is using its school-based counselors to implement CBITS in schools. Announced by Governor Pat Quinn in January of 2010, the $50 million initiative targets the most violence-plagued communities and provides money for job training, programs for parents and young people, and school-based counseling.

Organizations in the 18 targeted Chicago communities got lists of schools in their area and were left to reach out to them and find out which principals wanted to work with them.

Some organizations with long-established ties to schools knew exactly where to go. Brighton Park Neighborhood Council Executive Director Patrick Brosnan says that parents asked for mental health services. Previously, BPNC pieced together grant funding for counselors for four schools. The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative will let BPNC offer a bit more support.

“Brighton Park is a violent community,” Brosnan says. “Children hear gunshots every night. They are living with that.”

At BPNC’s four schools, the teachers know that they can send a student who is acting up to the counselor, rather than to a disciplinarian. “Our counselor can look and see if there is something else going on,” he says. “Usually there is.”

But in neighborhoods where community groups and schools didn’t have the same ties, charter schools in many cases were the first to open their doors.

The principal and staff at three Perspectives schools on the Calumet campus and Chicago International Charter School’s Ellison campus welcomed the school-based counselors from UCAN and got groups going at the beginning of the school year. Meanwhile, two district-run elementary schools, Morgan and Ogelsby, couldn’t get groups started until January because of bureaucratic issues.

Other organizations report the same problem. Some principals at district-run schools said they already had programs. Other principals didn’t want to spend time or energy on the concept. CBITS requires two trained adults to co-facilitate groups, so if the community organization could only provide one, sometimes schools couldn’t or wouldn’t commit the second.

In a few cases, principals were hostile to the idea and viewed group therapy as just one more drain on already-limited time that could be spent teaching reading or math.

Yet the clinicians who have gotten CBITS groups up and running say they see students change as they go through it.

Tracey Evans is a school-based counselor who was placed in Bronzeville Charter School by Passages. She says two boys in her CBITS group were at a playground where a friend was shot dead.

“If the bullet would have flown in another direction, they could have been hit,” she says. The boys are in 8th grade and often aren’t open to talking. They told Evans that until they went to CBITS, they had never talked about the incident or how vulnerable it made them feel. 

Now, the two of them come to her to talk when they are feeling overwhelmed or sad.

Jorge Santaella started his first CBITS group at Shields in May. At the first session, most of the students shared their experiences and what was bothering them. But Santaella says one little girl couldn’t bring herself to reveal what had happened to her. After the others spoke, she simply admitted that things are not good at home.

Still, the step was encouraging, Santaella says. “It was a start.”

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Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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