Jim Sporleder, former principal at Walla Walla’s Lincoln High School, shows strong emotion while describing how engaging with troubled kids rather than expelling them led to a dramatic turnaround at the school. Everett’s Sequoia High School Principal Kelly Shepherd (right) and others joined Sporleder in a panel discussion Tuesday night at the Historic Everett Theatre. The documentary “Paper Tigers,” filmed at Lincoln High School, was shown as part of the program. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Snohomish County group seeks to lower student expulsion rates

Marysville, 814 kids. Mukilteo, 665. Everett, 625. Edmonds, 545. Lake Stevens, 294. Snohomish, 257. Stanwood-Camano, 174. Granite Falls, 167. Monroe, 165. Arlington, 137. Sultan, 87.

And Washington? In all, 44,655 public school students statewide were given out-of-school short- or long-term suspensions or expulsions in 2015. That’s according to discipline-rate statistics on the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction website.

Just numbers? No. They are lives. They are futures derailed. They are our community’s kids.

The good news is that in Snohomish County, schools, law enforcement and social service agencies have launched a serious effort to recognize the effects of trauma in children’s lives, lower the rates of expulsions and suspensions, and help students become more engaged in school.

People and organizations coming together as the Snohomish County Children’s Wellness Coalition, along with the county’s Human Services Department and the Snohomish Health District, hosted a kickoff event Tuesday night at the Everett Historic Theatre.

Sparking the evening’s discussion was a screening of “Paper Tigers.” Directed by James Redford, the son of actor and director Robert Redford, the documentary film follows the lives of several teens at Lincoln High School, an alternative school in Walla Walla.

Jim Sporleder, Lincoln’s former principal, participated in Tuesday’s panel discussion. Among others on the panel were Sequoia High School Principal Kelly Shepherd, county juvenile probation counselor Ana Maria McCleary, and Christopher Daikos, a Seattle educator and consultant with expertise in trauma-informed practices.

Tuesday’s event was followed by a conference Wednesday at Tulalip Resort Casino featuring Robert Macy, a clinical psychologist and founder of the International Trauma Center in Boston.

Discussions focused on what are known as “ACEs,” adverse childhood experiences. Studies have shown that those negative experiences can bring long-term consequences — poor school performance, aggressive behavior, drug or alcohol abuse, and serious health problems among them.

Early experiences that can raise those risks are physical, emotional or sexual abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence; having a family member in prison; losing a parent to death or divorce, and mental illness or addiction in the family.

The question is how to counteract the ruinous effects of negative childhood experiences. Experts at Tuesday’s event said that building resilience is an answer. Real hope is found in positive, nurturing relationships.

A longtime middle school teacher in Walla Walla, Sporleder said he was once an old-school disciplinarian. In 2009, he heard Dr. John Medina speak about brain research. An affiliate associate professor in the University of Washington’s bioengineering department, Medina spoke about toxic stress and brain development.

“I always loved the kids, but I realized that I was punitive,” Sporleder said.

With new knowledge, he helped bring change to Lincoln High School that meant understanding kids’ lives. Some of the students profiled in “Paper Tigers” had experienced sexual assault or being hit by a parent. After one girl became homeless, she found refuge in a teacher’s home.

And rather than throwing kids out of school, Lincoln instead arranged for in-school suspensions.

Liza Patchen-Short, a children’s mental health liaison with Snohomish County Human Services, said the events were just the beginning of this work locally. A two-year grant program, $100,000 per year, will pay for consultant work in schools to provide training and services.

Goals include bringing “trauma-informed practices into the schools,” Patchen-Short said. “It’s changing school culture, and supporting what they’re already doing well.” She sees possible changes in policies, and perhaps in-school suspensions.

“It’s really asking what is going on with kids, instead of what’s wrong,” Patchen-Short said.

Shepherd said some situations that in the past may have resulted in suspensions at Sequoia are now handled with earnest conversations.

Past experiences don’t have to dictate the future, she said. “A high ACEs score doesn’t determine who you are,” Shepherd said. “The No. 1 antidote is a consistent, caring adult.” Recent changes in state law require that schools work to re-engage with students who have been suspended or expelled, she added.

Shepherd was encouraged to see schools, the judicial system and social services come together with a fresh approach to helping kids succeed. “We now have a shared language,” she said.

While still holding a student accountable, she said, it’s recognizing that perhaps that kid’s brain was “wired differently.”

“It’s a focus on the positive, and helping them identify tools so they can move forward and learn,” Shepherd said. “I think it’s a really hopeful time for kids.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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