After Russell County school employees were educated about adverse childhood experiences, suspensions dropped by half

Suspensions of elementary-school students in Russell County have dropped by half since 2019, when teachers, staff, counselors, and bus drivers began getting intensive training on the effects of childhood trauma on students’ mental and physical health, reports Nadia Ramlagan of Public News Service.

“More kids report feeling safe, cared for, and feel they ‘belong’ at school,” Ramlagan reports, citing the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which provided a grant for the project.

The foundation’s senior policy and advocacy officer, Amalia Mendoza, told Ramlagan that rural communities face challenges in reducing behavior problems from adverse childhood experiences.

“We’re talking about toxic stress, we’re not talking about just any adversity,” Mendoza said. “There’s really that kind of stress that is ongoing, and that can produce changes even in the brain and in the immune system.”

According to the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, nearly 40% of American children have had at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE): neglect or abuse, living with someone with a drug, alcohol or serious mental-health problem, the death of a parent, or exposure to violence or discrimination in the home or community.

Tracy Aaron, director of health education for the Lake Cumberland District Health Department, told Ramlagan that adverse childhood experiences have been linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and mental-health problems in the 10-county district. “If you look at the data that backs up ACEs,” she said, “we have a very high rate of poverty, we have teen pregnancy. Substance use is an issue.”

Russell County School Supt. Michael Ford told Ramlagan that schools can’t fix family problems, but can remove barriers that affect academic performance and provide spaces where students see de-escalation, self-care and effective problem-solving techniques, and healthy relationships.

Ford said, “We want our kids to be resilient, right? Number one, we want to prevent anything that we can help prevent. Kids, regardless, are going to have ACEs, but ACEs do not have to hold them back.”

He said successful strategies in the district include parent and grandparent training on how to build kids’ resilience, increasing support for school counselors, and changing discipline policies.

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