Trauma: The latest addition in school-to-prison problem

Essa school prison photo
Experts say that the trauma youth experience can lead to a life of crime. Image courtesy of Richard Ross

Tiffani Knowles Special to The Miami Times/NNPA/ESSA

It was 3 a.m. when an 11-year-old broke into a Miami home while a family was sleeping. He was arrested and sent to juvenile detention for processing.

The day before, he had stolen a car and was caught in a high-speed chase with the police before jumping out of it at 40 miles per hour.

When staffers at the Miami-Dade County Juvenile Services Department advised Director Morris Copeland acutely, “This one, we can’t let this one out, Mr. Copeland,” he took off his jacket and tie and looked the boy square in the eyes, searching for regret — or at least fear.

“I told him, ‘Don’t you know you could have died during one of those incidents? He said … ‘Mr. Copeland, I don’t care nothing ‘bout that … I don’t want to live,’” Copeland recounted.

Looking at a case like this one, Copeland said youth like him have been exposed to traumatic events that leave them hopeless. Copeland avows he refuses to lock up youth under the age of 12 and instead negotiates with the state attorney for an alternative to detention.

“These are not evil men. These are hurting boys. They have been victims over and over again, traumatized to the point that they don’t care anymore,” he said.

Copeland was one of several community leaders who spoke to an audience of students, parents, educators and health practitioners at the Afrocentric Talking Circle “Ubuntu ‘I Am Because We Are’” presented by the School to Prison and Education committees of Miami-Dade’s NAACP.

Following an April 9 shooting in Liberty City that left two boys dead, leaders met on April 14 at Jessie Trice Health System, in Miami to determine how post-traumatic stress disorder may be the cause of what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.


“There are more children experiencing PTSD in the inner city than all of the soldiers who came out of the Afghanistan War … but these soldiers can get out; the kids can’t,” said Cornelia “Corky” Dozier, Performing and Visual Arts Center co-founder and one of the event’s talk-back leaders.

Freddie Young, the chairperson of the school-to-prison pipeline committee, gathered experts like Copeland to share research and anecdotal evidence to prove some problematic students aren’t just menaces bound for prison but are children “acting out” – the effects of trauma that was first done to them.

“This notion of expecting kids to bounce back from gun violence and go to school the next day is not a realistic expectation,” said Dr. Roderick King, a pediatrician and assistant dean of public health education at University of Miami medical school.

He echoes the research of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician who developed methods to screen and treat children suffering health problems attributable to toxic stress and recently published her findings in the book “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity.”

On MRIs of children who experienced trauma, Burke’s team observed a shrinking of the hippocampus, a brain area important for memory and emotional regulation, and an increase in the size of the amygdala —the brain’s fear center.

When a child witnesses gun violence, they experience short-term effects like disruptions in sleep cycles and trouble maintaining social relationships. But the long-term effects are more troubling, King said.

After witnessing multiple, frequent incidents, children may exhibit aggression, out-of-place sexual behavior, self-harm and abuse of drugs or alcohol, all of which can result in potential incarceration.

“So, by the time they’re 16, and they’re dealing with tough life issues, they don’t know how to bounce back because of the cumulative effects of PTSD,” he said.

District 2 School Board Member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall said there is no easy way to recover from this kind of violence.


“Our students handle trauma differently, and what we as educators must do is to give our children the best education and opportunities to learn and grow,” she said. “Miami-Dade County Public Schools is always ready to provide counseling and support for our students affected by gun violence.”

Copeland also claims that the deeper the kids go into the criminal justice system, “the darker they are,” and he believes it’s his duty and the duty of others in the community to disrupt this cycle by treating children like they’re children.

He reported that in Miami-Dade County, they have made more strides than other metropolitan cities in the U.S., declining from 22,000 juvenile arrests when he started in 1978 to just over 3,000 arrests in 2017.

Further credit goes to the work of people like Edwin Lopez, deputy chief of Miami-Dade School Police Department, who was also invited to speak at the Ubuntu Talking Circle. Lopez, a former Miami-Dade teacher, entered the police force to give students alternatives and, since he’s been there, the school arrest rate has decreased by 50 percent.

“We’ve had a huge culture change in the way we view Hispanic and Black males, who had the highest rate of arrests,” he said.

He cites the civil citation program for misdemeanors, officers now issuing warning and dismissals and re-framing nonviolent felonies as factors for the culture shift and decline in arrests.

“For example, stealing an iPhone is a felony because it’s worth more than $300,” said Lopez. “But when a 9, 10 or 11-year-old steals an iPhone, maybe jail is not the best option for them.”

Lopez said these new policies keep the criminal justice system from being a revolving door, which can produce toxic stress in a student.

“This can make a child more sensitive to threats or challenges and the pleasure and reward center of the brain —the part that is stimulated by cocaine, heroin, tobacco, sex, high-sugar and high-fat foods — can be affected,” said Burke.


But, even when children resist high-risk behavior, there are still damaging effects due to toxic stress. Young asked adults to take the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) assessment, first published in 1998, to fully understand how severe or prolonged levels of childhood adversity affected their own lives.

In the talk-back circle, some attendees shared their scores on questions like “Did a household member go to prison?” and “Did a parent push, grab, slap or throw something at you?”

The scoresheet explained that with an ACE score of 4 or more, the likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease, asthma, depression and suicide goes up exponentially.

Burke says the reason for the onset of illness is because a child’s stress hormones have to work overtime when placed in dangerous environments.

“Our biological stress response is designed to save our lives from something threatening, and that’s healthy. The problem is that when the stress response is activated repeatedly, it can become overactive and affect our brain development, our immune systems and even how our DNA is read and transcribed,” said Burke.

The research offers some explanation for why trauma victims may commit violent crimes like the ones in Liberty City or even in Parkland. But, the problem, Copeland said, is that oftentimes the residents in urban areas normalize violence, and “it becomes part of our everyday routine.”

Young, Dozier and others working with the NAACP are hoping to give Black communities the voice to express their trauma instead of normalizing it.

“You look at all those kids from Parkland, and they were trained communicators. For us, the arts becomes the voice for the voiceless right now,” said Dozier. “But now we need to teach them to be trained communicators even more so than the way they’re expressing themselves in the music or in the film.”

Leadership and business coach Daphne Valcin said she believes that reaching out for a community of support can help in overcoming childhood trauma like the type she experienced.

Valcin grew up in North Miami Beach witnessing multiple fights by rival gangs and attending a middle school that had a reputation for gun violence.

When she was away in college, she received word that close friends were shot and killed.

Now, at 34, she mentors young people and coaches business professionals on how to redefine their past in order to achieve present success.

“I choose to see people through a lens of hope,” she said.

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