An Interview with Alfonso Ramirez on Trauma Informed Schools

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In 2016, OSBHA worked to pass a bill to pilot trauma informed schools and funds were allocated to support two pilot schools, Tigard High School (THS) and Central High School (CHS) in Independence, OR. This is the third year of the pilot.

OSBHA has been providing technical assistance to the two schools, working closely with the Trauma Informed Schools Coordinators’ hired to transform the schools. Alfonso Ramirez is the coordinator at THS.

OSBHA Policy and Strategic Initiatives Director Maureen Hinman talked with Ramirez about his experience with trauma informed schools.

Maureen Hinman: Why do you think it’s important for schools to be embracing this work?

Alfonso Ramirez:
We know from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey Data that a large percentage of children experience serious neglect, abuse and childhood dysfunction before they turn 18. This adversity can cause trauma and chronic stress and raises the risk of serious negative educational, behavioral and health outcomes.

Nationally and within Oregon, we have seen an increase in suicides, anxiety and depression among teens. Within Oregon, fewer students are reporting knowing how to cope with mental health issues and stress.

These adverse experiences impact learning in significant ways such as a student's ability to pay attention in class, form positive relationships with peers and teachers as well as retain the information they are learning. It is important to address this trauma and adversity to be effective educators for all students.

Since a trauma informed school is a relatively new concept, can you talk about your role and how it has evolved?

My role has been to coordinate the development of trauma informed approaches and practices in a large high school. This has been difficult because the concept of trauma informed schools has not been well defined and the trauma informed approaches and practices have not been fully researched or validated. We know that addressing trauma in schools in important, but we don't know the best way to do that.

My role initially was to learn all I could about trauma and stress and share that with as many stakeholders (staff, students and families, and community members) as I could. This included making the case for trauma informed approaches through the [Adverse Childhood Events] ACEs data and the neuroscience on trauma and stress, and it included collecting and developing some strategies to help students cope with adversity and stress to be better learners.

My role hasn't changed but rather the work has deepened. I focus much of my time on guiding the integration of the work which includes building trauma informed systems, collecting and evaluating data and partnering with students, families and community members to further their knowledge and to ask for their input and help with this work. I continue to support ongoing training and education for staff, students and families, leadership and also myself. I also spend time managing the grant itself and building the sustainability of the work which includes sharing our work, our learning and outcomes with school board members, the superintendent, staff, community members and families.

How have you seen the response and interest of school staff change over time?

I entered the project at the end of the first year. I believe the initial response was mixed. Staff in most districts feel overwhelmed with multiple initiatives and policy changes and the idea of taking on "one more thing" was probably daunting to many staff members. Since that first year, I have seen an increase in the understanding of "trauma and its impact" and the need for trauma informed approaches to help support not only students, but families and staff. There is more curiosity about it.

Our administrators have been very supportive of this approach and a growing number of staff are involved in deepening their own learning through participation in trauma informed leadership meetings, off site training opportunities, book clubs and learning cohorts to improve trauma informed practice.

I know you have been involving students in this work. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

We have a student advisory committee called the Trauma Informed Equity Committee which has created a pilot student climate survey to get a good look into how students experience teacher and peer relationships, the student environment, and equity in their education. This data was used to inform a larger student survey which will be given out later in the year. Once the survey results have been collected, the committee will plan student led projects to help improve student climate.

Our video production department Tigard Today is planning on filming a series of lessons on stress management and mental health. Our Student Health Advisory Council will also participate in the mental health messaging that appears on Tigard Today.

An unexpected but positive trauma informed student initiative occurred after the tragic synagogue shooting. Tigard High staff decided to check in with the Jewish Student Union Club to offer support. That simple check-in led to a request by the club to develop and deliver a student message of support for all religious and ethnic groups. The Jewish Student Union brought together all of our affinity and religious groups and Tigard Today filmed them, delivering a powerful video message that educated students about the event and sent a message of support for students of all religions and ethnicities. They ended with resources that any student could use if they ever feel targeted or bullied.

Students have a lot of power and can have a great impact in creating a trauma informed school.

What kind of changes might someone notice as they observe people throughout the school?

Most of the trauma informed changes are going to be subtle. We have managed to drop our disciplinary referral rate in half but that is something that is hard to see if you were to just walk into the school.

Some of the teachers make it a consistent practice to greet students at the door or offer more breaks during class. Some of them are actively teaching self-regulation strategies such as stretching, square breathing, walking or playing baroque music. Some are having students experiment with regulation techniques like using hard candy, diffusers, elastic bands or other sensory objects to learn what helps them calm down or become more learning ready.

Many offices and classrooms have posters of the brain sequence model and the stress continuum posted for teachers and students to refer to. The brain sequence model serves as a reminder that for students to get to the cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for learning, they also must make sure the relational, safety, and sensory parts of the brain are regulated. The stress continuum model reminds us that stress occurs along a continuum and the more stressed we are, the less we are able to access our functional intelligence. We do need some stress to learn but too much stress on the student or teacher will make us less capable of learning or teaching.

There is a lot going on at Tigard High School and much of it centers on the relationships we are creating with students. Discipline is focusing more and more on support as opposed to punishment. We know that the best support is a positive adult in each student's life.

Is there anything else you want to make sure people know about?

We are really just beginning to scratch the surface of what we think is possible at a trauma informed school. Six keys that we have found helpful were adapted from a model created by Trauma Transformed and the San Francisco Department of Public Health. They are: deepening our understanding of trauma and stress; supporting resilience; creating dependable relationships; collaborating and empowering staff, students, and families members in the work that we are doing; practicing and committing to cultural humility and equity; and establishing a safe and predictable environment for everyone. The natural by-product of doing those six things is compassion. The more you do those things, the more compassionate your school becomes. That seems to be a key ingredient of a trauma informed school.

We have a lot of work ahead of us and I don't think it ever stops. It's an ongoing commitment.


To learn more about Tigard High School’s Trauma Informed School Effort, visit their website.

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