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The (Re)production of Violence and Trauma in High Schools: How Institutional Policies and Practices Influence Teacher and Staff Decision Making


Research shows that violence exposure, trauma, and education are inextricably linked, cyclically influencing one another and impacting adolescents’ current and future well-being. These experiences are caused and often exacerbated by racism embedded within institutions. This complex relationship between trauma and exposure to violence negatively impacts adolescents’ behavioral and academic functioning within schools. Experiences of trauma and post-traumatic stress impact adolescents throughout their lives, trickling down into schools perpetuating the inequities that uphold marginalization. While the impact of violence exposure and trauma on individual youth has been clearly delineated, research has failed to highlight their institutional causes. Understood as an individual problem, the concept of trauma creates and maintains a deficit framework that blames students and their communities for experiencing systemic causes of harm. Through this pathological approach to addressing violence-related trauma, harmful policies and practices within schools are masked. Research that is unclear on the complex ways institutions reproduce or even create harm renders the systemic causes of violence-related trauma invisible. To challenge the individual deficit approach to trauma-informed care in schools, a constructivist grounded theory multiple case study design was used to explore how teachers and school staff perceive, are impacted by, and respond to the manifestation of trauma derived from community violence exposure in three High Schools in Los Angeles County, California. Findings draw from critical race theory and healing justice to inform a conceptual framework that describes how individual responses to trauma can be situated within institutional power dynamics. The framework from this study details the nexus between teacher education programs, district policies, resources, staff biases, and collective well-being through four main themes: (1) these teachers and school staff determine what constituted trauma for a student, even with minimal information; (2) individual experiences embedded within institutional factors encourage paternalism as the main response to trauma in schools; (3) this response leads to the demoralization of those caring for students; and (4) combined, each of these factors holds a cumulative impact on current and future students. I conclude by discussing the need to identify institutional causes of trauma to understand better and meaningfully address the (re)production of violence-related trauma in schools.

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