What could be higher priority for human beings than the Priority of Health?
Nevertheless, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) refuses to make health the priority on two lethal fronts.
One toxic front is frustratingly familiar: SDP buildings exude carcinogens such as asbestos and lead, as well as “merely infectious”, black mold, cockroaches, and rat and mouse feces which children and staff must tiptoe around.
The “easy”, moral priority, of course, should have been that school buildings must be unquestionably healthy before human beings enter, or we “do not enter”.
It’s not complicated.
Yet, shockingly, today, SDP buildings remain dangerous.
SDP Protocols to identify, and to report and to remove carcinogens from their buildings are still broken. SDP wastes precious time defending their re-actionary strategy: only respond after the carcinogen is “damaged” or airborne. But, by their own definition, it’s too late after the carcinogen is in the air. Meanwhile, the floating carcinogen continues risking human beings until someone identifies it, or until SDP’s next sixth-month inspection (noting that key evidence has been missed multiple times during multiple SDP “inspections”).
SDP’s cry that the budget “prohibits” action is patronizing and appalling, even illogical, unless health and life are a lower priority than “keeping the factory running”.
“Negotiations”, lawsuits and judges are now required to protect us from health toxins and failed protocols in our own buildings.
The one hopeful aspect of toxic buildings is that, if we can get past denial and delay, buildings can be repaired or rebuilt.
Simultaneous, Second Toxic Assault on Health
“It’s like having a knifepoint at your throat and, simultaneously, a knifepoint at your heart”.
Lives are at risk on a second toxic front also mismanaged for years by SDP: toxic trauma, maybe less familiar, but be sure of trauma’a equal toxicity and destruction.
One grim difference is that health injuries from toxic trauma cannot be removed simply, like removing toxins from buildings.
Toxic trauma, or “potentially traumatic experiences (PTEs), include the “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) of abuse and neglect, in both physical and emotional forms, as well as family dysfunction, environmental dangers and more.
Traumatic experiences happen to children like exposure to lead and asbestos happen to them. Trauma-impacted children are not sick or “bad”, they are injured. Early detection and intervention are crucial to changing the injured child’s life-trajectory. In contrast, when unaddressed, and the children become adults, many re-enact their unaddressed trauma, injuring the next generation in a merciless cycle.
According to the Center on the Developing Child, at Harvard University, when they’re unaddressed, toxic trauma injuries:
- change the physical architecture of a child’s brain,
- re-set the stress-response systems,
- change social behaviors and
- inhibit cognition.
Where is the urgency?
The similarities between toxic trauma and carcinogens are chilling. They’re equally destructive. Like toxic lead and asbestos, unaddressed, toxic trauma can shorten children’s lives. The research has been replicated many times over, beginning with CDC/Kaiser Permanente (1998). The American Academy of Pediatrics confirms that lifelong impacts of unaddressed ACEs correlate with the leading causes of death in adulthood: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and suicide.
The scale of childhood trauma is massive. Researchers use the terms “epidemic” and “crisis”, as with lead and asbestos. Research in Philadelphia (2013) identified half Philadelphia’s population exposed to 4 or more ACEs.
For significance, the earlier CDC work revealed that 3+ ACEs correlate over a lifetime, with doubled risk of depression, severe obesity, drug abuse, lung disease, and liver disease. They triple the risk of alcoholism, STDs and teen pregnancy. Suicide attempts quintuple. Six+ ACEs correlate with early death by as much as twenty years.
SDP uses only a piecemeal approach to children’s full toxic reality.
Our District is addressing only toxic “buildings” (and only a few buildings), yet “whole children” bring their toxic trauma with them into all school buildings every single day. They can’t leave it at the door.
In “fight-flight-or-freeze” mode, human beings cannot focus on academics. It’s basic biology. Fulfilling an educational mission is an impotent dream. We must confront both dangers simultaneously.
There is more: SDP fails to confront the integral and compound impacts of toxic trauma on the adults.
First, adult educators carry their own trauma from childhood. Based on the scale of ACEs, 1,500 to 2,000 teachers are dealing with their personal trauma, before their front-line exposure to even higher rates among Philadelphia’s children.
Second, the adult front-line is exposed daily to injured children. Effective educators’ empathy and close relationships, with trauma-impacted children are a second source of trauma. Research shows that close work with trauma-impacted children conveys high occupational risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for front-line service providers. The phenomenon is analogous to getting the flu from a secondary source such as sharing the same room or touching the same doorknob as someone with the flu. The source, “bearing witness to others’ trauma”, is termed “secondary”. However, like the flu, the PTSD results are equally intense, irrespective of the source.
Front-line staff need help tomorrow. [See “Transforming Trauma, A New Paradigm” link here] Meanwhile, SDP exposes children and staff to each other’s trauma, without ready supports, daily.
Where is the urgency?
It Gets Worse: SDP’s Toxic Priorities
Like their lack of urgency with carcinogens, the district is “gathering data” about toxic trauma abhorrently slowly, plodding along five-year plan till 2022/2023.
When I questioned SDP staff explicitly in November 2019, they were still completely ignorant of Act 18 of the PA School Code and its requirements of SDP regarding the trauma-informed paradigm. Now, at the January BoE meeting, with deft word parsing, they described their remaining three years as “training”, to align (sort of) with new mandates in Act 18, although they have never shared results of the two years to-date… I did not hear SDP or CBH or DBHIDS identify a single voluntary aspect of spending which would generate extra or unique elements versus Act 18 minimum requirements.
In spite of overwhelming existing research about developmental trauma and mountains of compelling data, available for more than 20 years, and even State mandates, SDP’s lethargic response to both of our lethal realities is breathtaking.
Decisions to delay comprehensive action on the science of childhood trauma are shockingly immoral. Dr. Sandra L. Bloom, an internationally recognized expert on Trauma Theory, equates the magnitude of the 21st century shift to a trauma-informed paradigm with the 20th century shift after scientists developed Germ Theory. Both were radical leaps in science. Bloom’s corollary is that after we understand trauma’s destructive power “it’s morally impossible to remain ethically neutral”.
Meanwhile, SDP’s “business factory” paradigm drives their dangerous, even deadly, priorities.
SDP continues sending children-in-crisis into buildings-in-crisis, prioritizing keeping the SDP “factory” running. Their flawed “business paradigm” prioritizes standardization, hours and hours of “test prep”, then test-taking and raising test scores along with other overhead burdens or an inward, “production-line focus”, at the expense of the whole child. It’s similar to the “banking model” of education as debunked by Paulo Freire about 50 years ago.
Conversely, successful businesses today focus on customer-needs as the first priority.
SDP’s dated paradigm has failed the very human beings SDP is meant to serve. Today, toxic buildings and toxic trauma both actively assault the health of our children and staff. Both unaddressed toxic health assaults are breeding deep, lifelong damages and early death.
To deal with only one toxin and ignore the other toxin would be like a Hospital Emergency Room setting a broken bone in your leg but ignoring your simultaneously broken skull.
Toxic Priorities: Change is Urgent
Philadelphians are savvy. We do know that there are budget issues in Philadelphia. We know that the buildings are old and require expensive remediation. None of that old information justifies discounting the lives and health of children or staff to meet a budget. It’s a false dichotomy. Human life and health must always be first priority.
Accountability for the priority of comprehensive health of human beings cannot be shifted, by blaming a budget. Specifically, SDP’s position that Philadelphia “cannot afford” to prioritize health of children is dangerous and morally wrong. Delays, because of “funding” are equivalent to putting a price on the other’s life and health. Delay is indefensible.
Prioritizing health in a trauma-informed paradigm is not a case of more spending, but a case of different spending, driven by different priorities.
The issue is not the budget, but administrators’ priorities. SDP is accountable for their priorities and their morality. SDP priorities today are repulsive, toxic, immoral.
SDP’s toxic priorities were explicitly lambasted at the January meeting of the Board of Education [See “Crisis of Priorities” link here]. Injured children and staff were then sent back into the same broken system again the next morning. Where is the urgency?
We must all speak!
Toxic priorities at SDP must be corrected, comprehensively, now.
Daun Kauffman is a community member in Hunting Park who has taught in NorthPhilly public school classrooms for 20 years. Daun earned an M.Ed at Temple University and an MBA from the Harvard University Graduate School of Business.
Kauffman is an active member of Philadelphia ACEs Task Force, writes at LucidWitness.com, curates a Facebook page, “Trauma-Informed Schools Journal” and manages a Facebook group, “Trauma-Informed Schools Group”.