Trauma and Its Impacts on the Truancy Court Program

By Erin Kay, CFCC Student Fellow (2019-2020)

In the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) Truancy Court Program (TCP), we cater to students from all over Baltimore City in a wide range of grade levels. Every school has a group of students who the school administrators believe can  benefit from the program’s services. The TCP is a holistic approach to address the root causes of truancy among students in the Baltimore City Public Schools. The involvement of students, families, school staff, CFCC staff, and a volunteer judge in weekly meetings aim to identify reasons for truancy. This program is strictly voluntary and lasts for ten to fourteen weeks during a semester. During these weekly meetings, the students also join CFCC staff and a CFCC student fellow in a restorative practice (RP) circle. In the circles, we use scenarios, prompts, and stories to teach students are restorative practices. These teaching tools are typically focused on relatable topics for the students such as dating, social media, bullying, and students’ rights. Throughout this and Spring and the previous Fall semesters, my law student colleagues in the CFCC Student Fellows Program and I have heard from dozens of these students as they sit in the RP circles and share glimpses into their personal lives. These stories have often included various traumatic events that have in one way or another impacted their ability to succeed academically.

Types of trauma that come up during restorative circles include physical abuse, neglect, witnessing murder or violence, and bullying. Those experiences can have lasting impacts through the form of PTSD. As discussed in the Fall semester of the CFCC Student Fellows Program I seminar, PTSD can result in a presentation of flashbacks, hypervigilance, persistent negative thoughts, and problems with aggressive or impulsive behavior. All of these can cause a student to be less interested in school or to fail academically.

In discussions with large groups of students at a Baltimore City public high school, I have heard about their trauma that has occurred in various forms. In the RP circles we hear about histories of abuse, impacts of substance abuse within homes, and other traumatic experiences that have affected students’ lives. Part of the work of a CFCC Student Fellow assisting with the RP circles is using these stories to “peel the onion” and link those experiences with possible causes of a student’s truancy. I have noticed that once the students are comfortable with the TCP staff and recognize that we are not there to lecture, they share their experiences with us and their peers. This often leads to a discussion among students who have similar experiences. The prompts and scenarios we use in the RP circles are tools to spark a conversation and provoke thoughts about relatable issues. The students are able to take a scenario, apply it to their own trauma, and learn how they could have or should have handled the event.

Practices like RP become tools that students can use later when their traumatic experiences creep back up in their lives. Because some of the trauma that surfaces is linked to the adults in their lives who often have failed them, we try to reassure students that there are adults for them to talk to, who care, and who can suggest resources to help them.


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