HEARTS program in Aurora provides healthy student response to trauma

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AURORA| In February 2014, Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Harry Bull shared a letter with the CCSD community addressing a topic he said wasn’t often discussed: student suicide. At the time, a Prairie Middle School student had committed suicide, prompting Bull and the district to send out the letter along with tips and resources.

Nearly three years later, CCSD’s mental health efforts have made the next big leap by bringing the Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS) program to Prairie MS, which will begin teacher and staff training in the program starting next month.

Originally crafted by the University of California, San Francisco and implemented in San Francisco Unified School District, HEARTS made its first appearance in Colorado at Aurora Public Schools in fall 2013. The program, aimed at disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline, helps educators recognize signs of trauma in students — and gives them the tools to intervene.

“Anything from a death in the family to divorce to observing violence, a student being in foster care, an at-risk parent or a parent being incarcerated, substance abuse in the home … all those things can affect a student,” said Cam Short-Camilli, coordinator of mental health services at CCSD. “When kids are at the high level of stress, they’re just not very available for learning. If they’re worried about going home and their safety or whether they’re going to have food, it has a high impact on them being able to focus in the classroom.”

Trauma can manifest as disruptive behavior, poor grades, lack of concentration and many other things, Short-Camilli said. Instead of responding to the behavior with suspension or expulsion, HEARTS aims to identify students who might be experiencing mental health problems which are affecting their school performance.

A 2012 study from John Hopkins University found that students who get suspended in ninth grade are twice as likely to drop out of high school than students who don’t. In addition, data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that students of color, particularly black students, are disproportionally suspended from class starting as early as preschool.

“Kids of color are overrepresented when it comes to (suspension and expulsion), and many of those kids have been exposed to trauma,” said Laura McArthur, co-director of HEARTS. “What we’re trying to do is move away from traditional exclusionary discipline practices, where students are sent out of class or suspended or expelled, and move toward how to support teachers and staff in keeping kids in the school, keeping them learning.”

Currently, HEARTS is at a dozen APS schools and has shown signs of success, McArthur said.

“There’s been a drastic decrease in suspensions, discipline referrals and expulsions,” said McArthur, who is also a clinical psychologist with Aurora Mental Health.

According to school data, suspensions decreased significantly at many APS schools after the implementation of HEARTS. Clyde Miller P-8 had 87 suspensions in 2014-15 compared to 20 the following year. Crawford Elementary saw a similar decrease, going from 77 to 10 suspensions.

“When we have kids who have difficult behavior over and over again, we work really closely with the teacher and the administrator, making sure there are alternatives in place,” McArthur said. “It could be going to a different classroom, having some restorative conversations between the child and the teacher, getting the parents involved or referring the kid to mental health services with a school-based therapist.”

What makes HEARTS especially important to Aurora is the fact that it is a very diverse city, McArthur said. According to the most recent demographics data, APS is primarily composed of students of color, with only about 17 percent being white and about 71 percent of students received free or reduced lunch.

“We have a huge population of students that are dealing with the intersection of race and poverty, and the stress that comes along with that,” she said. “We know now that from the research that children who are exposed to trauma can develop all kinds of behavioral and emotional struggles … that impact their ability to learn and do well in school, it’s as simple as that. So having that understanding is really key for schools who have students who have been exposed to a lot of trauma.”