a collage of drawn students


Trauma-sensitive schools understand that children can encounter Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. Most ACEs are considered complex trauma, which is the result of abuse by caregivers over time. Trauma-sensitive schools understand the impact of trauma on children’s developing brains and work to provide support so that students can thrive in the classroom.

What happens when schools are the threat against students that prevent them from thriving? What happens when the trauma that students are encountering day to day is coming from their experiences within schools? Children in the U.S. spend approximately seven hours per day, five days per week for 180 to 190 days per year for 13 years. Since children spend so much time at school, we need to explore the ACEs that occur there.

Schools are a microcosm of society, and one of the underpinnings of the U.S. is racism. Unless those who in authority intentionally and deliberately do something different, schools will take on the same shape and form as their societies. Therefore, it is imperative that we define racism in effort to understand how we see it enacted against students within schools.

Legal scholar Patricia Williams argued that racism is more than just physical pain. Racism robs Black and Brown people of their humanity and dignity and leaves personal, psychological, and spiritual injuries. With regularity, school district spokespersons portray racist incidents as isolated events, the work of culturally insensitive teachers. These responses never acknowledge how racism is structural and systemic, or how racism is maintained by violence. We are missing opportunities to connect and discuss the trauma of racism in relation to Black and Brown students’ social and emotional learning.

According to the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, structural racism is “macro-level conditions that limit opportunities, resources, power, and the well-being of individuals and populations based on race.” These are the elements within our socio-historical, political, economic, and cultural landscapes that align privilege with whiteness. Marginalization, or disadvantages, are aligned with being a person of color. These conditions accrue and transmute over time, producing chronic adverse outcomes for people of color.

According to Mental Health America, institutional racism is “discriminatory treatment, unfair policies and inequitable opportunities and impacts, based on race, produced and perpetuated by institutions.” When individuals begin to advantage and disadvantage people based on race, they have taken on the power of the institution. Ideologically, institutional racism assumes white superiority. This assumed superiority shows up in conscious and unconscious ways throughout systems, thereby making it systemic.

Since racism works through institutions, systematically, it becomes imperative, specifically in these troubling, divisive times, to shift deficit ideologies and practices about and towards students. Therefore, it is imperative that we discuss ways that students encounter ACEs intellectually, emotionally, and physically within our schools.

It is purported that half of all school-aged children will be children of color by 2030. However, our curriculum and instruction does not reflect the racial, ethnic, or cultural diversity that is present within our schools. When the curriculum does mention Black and Brown stories, the pains of our history are minimized or romanticized.

Intellectually, schools should provide mirrors and windows, so children and youth can see a reflection of themselves in the curriculum while also gaining an understanding of the cultural experiences of others. However, schools annihilate the histories and experiences of the diverse American peoples.

Emotionally, school dress code and appearance policies are a great place to look for gendered and racialized disparities. In 2017, Nicole Orr’s father was called by the Montverde Academy in Lake County, Florida, saying that she needed to “get her hair done” because her (natural) hair violated the dress code. Additionally in 2017, in Malden, Massachusetts, two Black sisters were banned from track, the Latin Club, and all school events after they came to school with braided hair extensions. School dress code policies against the natural hair of Black students have also extended to Black boys who choose to wear their hair in locs.

Teachers, administrators, and school resource officers can demonstrate egregious behavior. However, this behavior is wielded against students of color at alarming rates. We can turn to recent news headlines to read stories of this perpetuation of racist treatment against students.

“Fourth Grader Called N-Word by Vice Principal” (Newsweek)

“Four [Black] girls at N.Y. middle school subjected to ‘dehumanizing’ strip search” (NBC News)

“Video shows Kansas teacher kicking 5-year-old student” (USA Today)

These are not isolated events. When you take the opportunity to speak with children and youth, they share their stories of the intellectual, emotional, and physical traumas they encounter in school spaces every day. School board leaders, school administrators, and educators have a responsibility in this historical time to support dynamic changes in school quality that require a commitment to educational justice and equity. These changes must be ongoing and voluntary.

We must use our positions of authority within to ensure that our students, specifically Black and Brown students, are not intellectually, emotionally, and physically traumatized. In this way, we are truly creating trauma-sensitive schools.

Sherell A. McArthur (drmac@beyondwellcoach.com) is an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Department of Educational Theory and Practice and the founder of Beyond Life Coaching (https://beyondwellcoach.com).


Bishop, R.S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3), ix–xi.

Fieldstadt, E. (2019, August). Texas school staffers colored in black teen's haircut with a Sharpie, lawsuit claims. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/texas-school-staffers-colored-black-teen-s-haircut-sharpie-lawsuit-n1043956.

Hafner, J. (2016, April). Texas teacher arrested after video shows her slapping student. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/04/10/texas-teacher-beaumont-hastings-ozen-arrested-after-video-shows-her-slapping-students-head/82874348/.

Harriot, M. (2019, March). NY School Holds Mock Slave Auction Selling Black Students to White Kids. Retrieved from https://www.theroot.com/ny-school-holds-mock-slave-auction-selling-black-studen-1833205430.

Hobdy, D. (2013, November). Florida School Threatens to Expel African-American Girl for Wearing Natural Hair. Essence. Retrieved from https://www.essence.com/news/florida-school-threatens-expel-african-american-girl-wearing-natural-hair/.

Ortiz, E. (2019, April). Four girls at N.Y. middle school subjected to 'dehumanizing' strip search, lawsuit says. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/four-girls-n-y-middle-school-subjected-dehumanizing-strip-search-n1000321.

Racism and Mental Health (2020, June). Retrieved from https://www.mhanational.org/racism-and-mental-health.

Ramsey, A.P. (2004). Teaching and learning in a diverse world (4th ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Slisco, A. (2019, October). Fourth Grader Called N-Word by Vice Principal, According to Boy’s Parents. Newsweek. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/fourth-grader-called-n-word-vice-principal-according-boys-parents-1464251.

Structural Racism and Discrimination (2021, March 2). Retrieved from https://www.nimhd.nih.gov/resources/understanding-health-disparities/

Williams, P.L. (1991). The alchemy of race and rights: The diary of a law professor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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