Petaluma schools implementing new approach to work with struggling students

On a recent school day in Petaluma, 57 students were on a waitlist to see a city schools therapist. The number of students seeking help is growing, but the school district lacks the funding to hire more counselors.

Not only school administrators are concerned. An event Thursday night at Boulevard Cinemas focusing on childhood trauma and its impact on students drew more than 200 people.

Administrators and the Petaluma Health Care District hosted a screening of the 2015 documentary “Paper Tigers” accompanied by a speakers panel discussing “trauma-informed care,” how to care for struggling students who’ve experienced trauma.

The approach focuses on recognizing certain traumas, known as adverse childhood experiences that can lead to toxic stress. There are 10 recognized ACEs falling into three categories: abuse, neglect and household dysfunction.

A December 2014 report by the San Francisco-based Center for Youth Wellness shows that more than 20 percent of adults in Sonoma County have experienced at least four ACEs. Research shows that people who experience that many ACEs are 12 times more likely to attempt suicide, 10 times more likely to use intravenous drugs, seven times more likely to suffer from alcoholism, five times more likely to suffer from depression, and twice as likely to experience heart disease, stroke or cancer.

Brian Farragher, executive director of the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma, led the panel discussion. He’s been using trauma-informed care in his work since about 2000.

“At the end of the day, what goes wrong in many of our schools and in our treatment centers is we think we can change kids,” he said. “We think we can change other people. We can’t. And it creates a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety because we’re banging our head against the wall. What needs to change is the way we approach these situations.”

Dave Rose, director of student services with the Petaluma schools, said the district’s 21 mental health counselors are inundated with 700 students seeking help.

“Each generation has its own challenges and temptations for youth to make poor choices,” he said. “The ease in access of those temptations are probably more prevalent and available now to our youth than they ever have been.”

That, he said, is what’s leading so many students to seek help from school therapists.

“The anxiety-producing potential of the social media that’s available for our students today, that’s an issue,” Rose said. “Substance abuse in our community is an issue. Bottom line: Being a teen and growing up - it’s tough.”

And yet Petaluma City School District’s 91 percent graduation rate is the highest in the county, while its 9 percent truancy rate and 1.3 percent dropout rate are the county’s lowest.

“Our current toolbox of things we can do to help students is working for the vast majority of our students, but we want the chance to get to everybody, so we need to get more tools,” Rose said.

Trauma-informed care is becoming one of those tools. The next step, he said, is to implement it in all schools. The district already had a screening for staff involved with alternative education, but Rose said he would like to hold one for principals, too.

That’s an idea that would please the group of Kenilworth Junior High School employees who attended Thursday night’s screening and panel. The documentary seeks to answer the difficult question of how teens can be educated when their childhood experiences have left them with a brain and body ill-suited to learn.

“Those are our people on that screen, the underdogs,” said Deborah Daniels, Kenilworth’s campus supervisor. “I think every one of the staff members at our school needs to watch (‘Paper Tigers’) to get a new perspective that not every kid’s a bad kid.”

She and Lyn Ronstad, a site coordinator at Kenilworth for Mentor Me, a Petaluma nonprofit that provides healthy adult role models for at-risk kids, were among four people from the school to attend.

“I think to stop and think about what got (kids) to that point is huge,” Ronstad said.

“Right,” Daniels said. “When kids are having a bad day, do you really know why they’re having a bad day? Find out their story first before you lash out.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 521-5205 or On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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