School & District Management Opinion

Trayvon Martin Verdict Renews Trauma for Students

By Anthony Cody — July 14, 2013 2 min read
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How will our students, especially students of color, receive the not guilty verdict the Zimmerman jury has handed down? Regardless of the basis upon which the mostly white jury reached its decision, this verdict renews the trauma of seeing an unarmed youth shot in his own neighborhood.

This creates a climate of fear for our youth, and every incident such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin, or of Oscar Grant in Oakland, is a fresh trauma. Educators know this takes a very real toll on our students’ capacity to learn.

A report carried in the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2007 revealed that many of the children in poor neighborhoods are actually suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The report says:

As many as one-third of children living in our country's violent urban neighborhoods have PTSD, according to recent research and the country's top child trauma experts - nearly twice the rate reported for troops returning from war zones in Iraq.

The researchers found that children with PTSD exhibit many behaviors familiar to urban educators. Experts say it often looks like Attention Deficit Disorder, with students being anxious, unable to concentrate well or sit still, prone to fights, and having trouble learning as a result.

This could be having a major impact on the achievement gap - but we don’t see much research in this direction, nor the funding of programs to deal with this.

The murder of Trayvon Martin was traumatic - especially for young people who identify with Trayvon. President Obama identified with Martin’s family, saying “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

We look to our judicial system for justice for Trayvon, but as with the Oscar Grant case and others, justice is scarce. The underlying message to our youth is one of intimidation and insecurity. They do not feel as if they belong, even in the neighborhoods in which they live.

Educators seek to create safe spaces within our schools for our students. We want our schools to be places our students feel secure, because we understand that people have a very difficult time learning when they are in a state of fear and agitation. In order to grow and explore, ask questions and express themselves, students must develop a sense of confidence, which requires that they feel physically and emotionally safe. Much of the school reform effort has focused on destabilizing and closing down schools, especially those in poor and minority communities. These school closures are profoundly disruptive to the lives of student and the efforts of educators in these communities.

We desperately need school reform efforts that offer students in poverty relief from trauma and fear. We need school reform that builds stability in our schools, and honors veteran teachers who have experience responding to challenging and traumatic situations in their community. We need small class sizes, and well supported staff with trained counselors who can help when neighborhood violence impacts the school. And we need to systematically address the elements of the school to prison pipeline, such as high stakes tests, exit exams and zero tolerance discipline policies.

The verdict in the Trayvon Martin case will unfortunately reinforce the trauma that his death caused for people around the country, and our challenge is to understand how violence of this sort impacts our students, not just on this occasion, but on a regular basis. How can we build schools that give our students the tools they need to survive this? And how can we work with our colleagues and students to change our world so such traumas are not part of the fabric of our students’ lives?

What do you think?

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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.