The Impact of Trauma and Urban Poverty on Students and Families

The University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) Truancy Court Program (TCP) team interacts with students of all ages who have unique needs. As we learn more about the students enrolled in the TCP, we often find that the reasons behind their attendance issues are profound and complex. A large majority of TCP students live in poverty-stricken urban communities where traumatic events occur on a regular basis.

According to this article by the Justice Policy Institute, “a traumatic event can involve interpersonal events such as physical or sexual abuse, war, community violence, neglect, maltreatment, loss of a caregiver, witnessing violence or experiencing trauma vicariously; it can also result from severe or life threatening injuries, illness, and accidents.” It is not hard to understand how living in this environment can greatly affect a student’s ability to come to school on a regular basis and perform well academically. One of the TCP 9th graders, LaToya*, came to one of the first TCP weekly meetings with a visibly sad demeanor. She gave curt explanations for her sporadic attendance and shrugged off questions about why her grades were dropping. In a one-on-one conversation with her after the meeting, she revealed that in the past month she had lost two cousins and an uncle to gun violence. She expressed feelings of hopelessness and grief and said she had lost her motivation to come to school regularly or participate in her classes. She was bottling up very difficult emotions and had no one in whom she could confide. She said that no one in her family was open to talking about the deaths. She refused to talk to her friends because she did not want them “in her business.”

Another TCP student, Deon*, always came to the TCP meetings with a respectful and calm attitude. The reports from his teachers and school administrators, however, made it clear that his behavior in school was consistently disruptive and disrespectful. He could not sit still in class but would wander around the halls, causing distractions to students in other classrooms. His grades continued to drop and his behavior deteriorated even further; the school’s interventions were not working. As we got to know him better during our TCP meetings and in his private conversations with the TCP Social Worker and TCP Mentor, Deon revealed that he had been sexually abused as a young child by his older cousin. The abuse findings resulted in his cousin being incarcerated and caused a considerable amount of tension in the family. Despite his history of abuse and increasingly negative behavior, Deon’s mother ended his mental health therapy services at the recommendation of the therapist.

These are just two glimpses into the lives of students who participate in the TCP. During the TCP team’s time with the students, we reach out to their families and provide support through referrals to appropriate services and follow up on those referrals. We aim to create a safe space where students are given respect and dignity and feel that their voices are heard and valued. After our sessions end, we work to maintain contact and ensure that each student and his/her family have the necessary long-term resources in place.

Latoya was referred to a grief group counseling program for teenagers and her mother is arranging individual mental health therapy for her. We are working with Deon’s mother to get him re-enrolled in mental health therapy and continue to help her advocate on his behalf to ensure that he has the support and services he needs to achieve academic success. Students like LaToya and Deon and their families, who have confronted and continue to face trauma in their communities, can succeed in school and beyond if there are well-informed and compassionate persons and programs in place to provide the care and resources they so desperately need and deserve.

*Names have been changed to respect students’ privacy.

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