Mother discusses impact of childhood traumas on students’ behavior

Mother discusses impact of childhood traumas on students’ behavior
Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 4:33 PM EST
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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA) - Schools in Northeast Indiana are working to address the disproportionate number of suspensions when it comes to black students and white students. Statistics released by the Indiana State Department of Education reveal that black students are more likely to face harsher punishments than their peers.

Educators and advocates say that childhood traumas can play a major impact in behavioral problems at school. Those traumas impact a student’s ability to focus on the classroom and the way they navigate conflict.

In part one of our 21Investigates report, we took a look at the numbers in our area’s four largest school districts: Southwest Allen County Schools, Northwest Allen County Schools, East Allen County Schools and Fort Wayne Community Schools.

READ MORE: 21 Investigates: Black students face harsher punishments in area schools, according to state data

Each district shows a higher percentage of black students being suspended, despite making up a minority of the student population.

Now, a mother is telling 21Alive News about her experience. Tiyonna Meriwether said her daughter has trouble in school. At the age of five she was suspended from school and even expelled. As time went on the behaviors continued. It reached a peak when her daughter suffered the loss of a cousin at the age of 12, whom she was very close to at the time.

“I saw a major change in her,” said Meriwether. It impacted her a lot. Imagine being that young and just feeling pain in that way.”

Diquan Meriwether was shot to death at the age of 19 in Fort Wayne. That’s when her daughter began fighting in school, leading to more suspensions.

Meriwether is concerned about – what she believes – is a lack of understanding between educators and students. So Meriwether turned to Aaron and Janell Lane who are co-owners at Courageous Healing. It is a culturally centered counseling facility located on Fort Wayne’s southeast side.

“I think it’s important that we see the students,” said Aaron Lane. “I mean you have to see past the surface.”

For Meriwether’s daughter, past traumas and the trauma of losing someone close to her triggered an emotional response. It played out inside the classroom. Those behaviors are caused by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). According to a study the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, nearly every school has students who have been exposed to traumatic experiences.

“Adverse childhood experiences are any childhood traumas that you face,” said Janell Lane. “If you are in fight or flight mode outside of the building, it’s likely going to impact your behavior inside the building.”

Those experiences could include anything from abuse and neglect to substance use, divorce, incarceration or the loss of someone close. Studies show the more trauma a child faces, the more likely that he or she is to have “negative life outcomes” such as being incarcerated, suffering from mental issues, or abusing drugs or alcohol.

“Sometimes we could focus so much on the behavior of kids that we don’t often look at the functions of the behavior,” said Aaron Lane.

Debra Faye Williams-Robbins is the Deputy Superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools. She said the district is spending a lot of time around trauma instruction and care for students. She said studies show kids who experience a lot of traumas, process things differently. Instead of thinking logically first, they act on emotion.

“You’ll see some students, even adults... immediately jump hot about a topic,” she said. “It takes a lot of intentionality. Alot of professional learning. A lot of looking at yourself, regardless of who you are.”

Meriwether is concerned that staff doesn’t the time to understand what was causing her daughter’s behavior, leaving her mother feeling hopeless.

These kids are experiencing so many levels of pain,” she said. “And we don’t even... parents don’t even have the answers.”