Equity & Diversity

How Can Schools Help Students Process Racial Trauma? A New Program Provides Answers

By Ileana Najarro — March 24, 2023 | Updated: March 24, 2023 6 min read
Illustration of a woman of color in distress with hands in her face and hair blowing upwards.
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Updated: This story has been updated to include all researchers involved in developing the intervention program.

For the last few years, East Palo Alto Academy in California faced an issue with hate speech: specifically, non-Black students using the n-word.

The high school, with ties to neighboring Stanford University, has a student body that is about 85 percent Latinx, 6 percent African American or Black, and the remainder Polynesian, or Pacific Islander. The school’s administrators are adamant about making sure no student feels marginalized on campus, so when members of the Black student union expressed concerns about whether the school’s policies were addressing the use of hate speech, Principal Amika Guillaume decided to act.

Guillaume agreed to have East Palo Alto Academy participate in an intervention program co-developed by Farzana Saleem, Stanford assistant professor in the graduate school of education, along with researchers Won-Fong Lau Johnson, Isaiah Pickens, and Audra Langley. The new pilot program is meant to equip school staff members and students with tools to navigate conversations around racial stressors and heal from the trauma that ensues.

TRANSFORM (Trauma and Racism Addressed by Navigating Systemic Forms of Oppression using Resistance Methods) began as a small scale pilot last year in Washington state led by clinical psychologist Lau in collaboration with Saleem. The creation of the pilot included input from community advisory board members, including people in juvenile justice settings, teachers, and students.

A new, 11-week pilot is currently underway at four northern California schools, two middle schools, and two high schools, including East Palo Alto Academy. Participating school staff, including teachers and support staff members, underwent training first. These staff members now run small groups at the school sites with regular check-ins with Saleem and her team.

While school counselors can do a lot of the work in helping students process and heal from racial trauma, Saleem’s hope is that those conversations are not limited to counselors.

“Teachers are not trained to be counselors and so that’s not the expectation, but the expectation is that they have some baseline level skills, to be able to figure out how to provide some sort of support and not avoid a conversation, or amplify, or make it worse,” Saleem said.

Early signs of empowered students

What Guillaume, and the researchers behind the intervention program, want to facilitate are instances when if a student tells a trusted staff member about a racist experience, they feel heard and supported. They want to avoid situations when students are made to second-guess themselves with questions such as “are you sure that’s what they meant?” or “why do you feel that way?”

“We want to make sure school is a place where especially our most marginalized students thrive,” Guillaume said. “And that’s why the work that Dr. Farzana is doing in TRANSFORM is so, so important.”

School staff leading TRANSFORM sessions with eight students at the East Palo Alto high school completed training in January and began the weekly sessions in February.

As the program has progressed, Guillaume can already see positive effects, especially in the participating students who are also members of the Black student union. The program offers students the language to advocate for themselves. Because sessions are held during school hours, it sends a message that addressing racial stressors and healing, matters to the school community, Guillaume said.

The program also encourages more asset-based approaches to addressing race-related trauma. Instead of focusing on teachers who poorly handle incidents of hate speech in class, students instead report on those who handle situations in ways that students approve, highlighting that good work can be done, Guillaume said.

“It does feel like we’re giving students this feeling of empowerment and strength and so the way that the BSU was talking to me [in a recent meeting], was coming from a place of strength, not victim. It was coming from a place of ‘I want to be part of the solution’,” Guillaume said.

A few years ago, members of the BSU wanted the school policy around the use of the n-word to be that only Black students could use it. But in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and ensuing national attention on Black Lives Matter, the student group came back to administrators wanting instead to focus on using uplifting language, Guillaume said. The students then worked with administrators to develop the current policy that no one be allowed to use the n-word on campus.

The new policy predates the intervention program. But the program makes Guillaume hopeful she can empower students to be upstanders who convince peers to avoid using any hate speech, rather than relying on punitive measures to implement change.

Other ways the school has strived to be conscientious about racial stressors more broadly is by shining a light on Afro-Latinx experiences during Latinx cultural celebrations, and openly discussing colorism—discrimination against people with darker skin tones—that is present in many cultures, Guillaume said.

How more schools can work to address racial stressors

Outside of intervention programs like the one in Washington state and California, schools interested in this kind of work can look to their school counselors for guidance.

The American School Counselors Association has ethical standards that are guides for school counselors’ work. The most recent iteration of these include a section on bullying, harassment, discrimination, bias, and hate, said Jill Cook, the organization’s executive director.

“It speaks to the fact that school counselors need to be aware of these issues, we need to advocate for school policies and protocols and trainings, to address these issues, and ensure that students have ways to report it to them and to make sure that they’re being heard,” Cook said.

Counselors work with students, other school staff, and families on identifying behaviors that may emerge from trauma responses including trauma from racial stressors. They work to come up with alternate responses, work on learning how to interact with understanding differences, and learning how to be a self advocate and how to overcome barriers, Cook said.

And while nationally, there are still school districts that either don’t have counselors or too few of them, Cook says other school staff can and must play a role in addressing racial stressors.

“This isn’t work just for school counselors, it’s not just for administrators, it is systemic,” she said. “It takes everyone, schools, families, students, communities, community agencies, to make real change in having these conversations. If a school perhaps doesn’t have a school counselor or enough school counselors, it doesn’t mean that this work cannot take place.”

Yet there may be another challenge to some of this work in schools. At least 18 states have passed some form of restriction on how educators can talk about race, which can impact frank conversation around racial stressors.

“When you have limitations placed on you about how you can work with students, speak to students, empower students, that’s a big barrier,” Cook said.

In states with such limits in place, Cook advises school counselors and educators to look to district leadership for guidance, including using different language or taking other approaches if specific terms can cause issues.

Overall, Guillaume in East Palo Alto encourages school administrators to hold empowering interviews with students and teachers alike. Leaders need to ask students what they want to see more of in school when it comes to addressing racial stressors, and what they feel should be added to create the most ideal school environment.

“Start with the most important people at the center,” she said. “Listen to them very carefully, and ask them questions that matter. And from there, then you do all your traditional admin stuff.”

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