Traumatized, Excluded, and Left Behind:

Special education is a pipeline to prison, homelessness, and a second-rate citizenship

Elisabeth Balistreri

Children with extreme social, emotional, and behavioral needs are not receiving what they need to succeed in school. These children are consistently suspended, expelled, and remanded to self-contained classrooms because traditional schools are not designed to meet their unique needs. Most of these children are left to face the disastrous consequences of dropping out of school–incarceration, homelessness, and poverty at tragic rates.

Trauma is a thief. It steals innocence, robs peace, crushes growth, sabotages connection, and ultimately seeks to destroy the potential and beauty of a life.

It traps its prisoners in fear brain, locking them in a physical, emotional, and behavioral prison that can’t see good in the present or future; it can’t trust people or form healthy relationships; it can’t respond appropriately to minor stressors—or even positive ones; it can’t imagine what it’d be like to be loved and successful; it can’t dream of a better tomorrow.

It trims us down to the most primal versions of ourselves. Fight, flight, or freeze become our autopilot in all situations.

Its sole focus is survival.

We all carry traces of trauma in certain areas of our lives. We’re all familiar with its impact on our bodies, minds, emotions, and behaviors.

For many children, their entire lives are marked by trauma. They have been neglected, abused, and even trafficked by the people meant to love and protect them, and they are left trapped in fear brain with no direction on how to get free.

These children struggle in every area of life–socially, emotionally, behaviorally, academically, relationally–and these struggles left unchecked will lead to lifelong captivity in maladaptive coping behaviors that completely crush their potential. Most end up homeless, addicted to drugs, in the sex industry, or incarcerated as adults.

School gives us the opportunity to reach these children. Every child is required to go to school, and every school is mandated to accept these children with extreme needs. School opens the door for us to lift children out of fear brain and give them the tools to overcome their trauma and realize their full potential.

However, sending these children into traditional schools subjects them to the standards created for students who have wildly different behavioral abilities. Traditional schools are not designed for the exceptional learner–and especially not for the behavioral outlier. They are not designed to meet the needs of these children and set them up for success. Most schools really have no idea what to do with these students.

Excluded from School

School exclusion through suspension and expulsion is commonly used as a tool to trigger behavioral change in students. While sometimes necessary to protect other students from violent and aggressive behavior, study after study reveals that school exclusion is not only ineffective in changing behavior, but profoundly harmful to students.

Children who are suspended and expelled from school are unsurprisingly less likely to achieve academically and are more likely to drop out of school: children with one suspension in 9th grade are twice as likely as their peers to drop out of school; a second suspension increases their dropout rate by 10%; and only 52% of students with suspensions or expulsions graduate from high school. 

Children who are excluded from school are not given the chance to succeed–and its impact extends far beyond academic failure.

“A sentence of banishment from the local educational system is…the extreme penalty, the ultimate punishment. In our increasingly technological society getting at least a high school education is almost necessary for survival. Stripping a child of access to educational opportunity is a life sentence to a second-rate citizenship.”
–Judge Godbold

Traumatized and Excluded

Students with emotional and behavioral disabilities (EBD) are the most frequently excluded group from school–more than twice as often as children without disabilities. A whopping 47% of children with EBD have been suspended or expelled in elementary or middle school, and 73% in high school. An astounding 61% drop out of school–more than any other group.

To make matters worse, many schools are calling the police on children as a form of behavioral intervention for relatively minor issues. Suspension from school is the number one predictor of future arrests, and children are ending up in juvenile detention centers directly because of their behavioral problems in school.

The school to prison pipeline is very real–and it most directly impacts our children with behavioral disorders.

37% of children in juvenile detention centers are special education students–though they make up only 12% of all students. 48% of children in juvenile detention centers should be receiving special education services but aren’t. That means a whopping 85% of children in juvenile detention centers should be special education students--whether or not they are receiving the resources they need.

The outcomes associated with dropping out of school illustrate the “second-rate citizenship” Judge Godbold warned of. High school dropouts:

  • are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than their graduated counterparts.
  • have a 40% higher unemployment rate.
  • generate about half of the income of high school graduates.
  • have a 50% higher likelihood of living below the federal poverty line.
  • experience higher rates of chronic disease, substance abuse, and suicide.

This truly is a second-rate citizenship, and this is the reality of adult life for more than half of children who grew up in traumatic environments. We cannot accept this.

The Social Burden

Socially, school is often a hostile environment for children with emotional and behavioral disorders.

Children carrying trauma do not naturally relate to people in healthy ways. They have spent years coming up with ways to cope with the destructive relationships in their lives in ways that promote self-protection, not connection. Without looking underneath the behavior for the root cause, these students often appear as any combination of obstinate, unmotivated, reclusive, disruptive, willful, aggressive, and defiant to teachers and other students.

They are misunderstood by just about everyone in their lives, and they feel completely excluded and disconnected from their peers. Their ability to forge relationships, especially with children who have no grid for what they’ve been through, is nearly nonexistent.

But the child whose behavior most pushes people away is the child who most needs connection, grace, and love. 

The number one reason students cite for dropping out of school is not having a personal relationship with a caring adult.

Social isolation is associated with a greater impact on physical and mental health than obesity and smoking. Children who feel isolated are at much greater risk of an array of physical and mental health problems including heart problems, lowered executive functioning, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide. Isolation even increases the risk of premature death by up to 100%.

But our children most in need of inclusion and connection are being kicked out and isolated–and their lives are crumbling.

The parents of these children–who are often foster and adoptive parents–are burdened with the reality that their child cannot be safely cared for at school during the week. At best, this impedes their ability to work, and at worst, it threatens their ability to maintain placement of their child. Many parents of these children end up with nowhere else to turn after their child has been expelled from every school in the area.

The lack of solutions to care for children with extreme needs in school is burdening society, destroying families, and crushing the potential of countless lives.

Providence Academy

Solutions are desperately needed to make school a place where these children are able to holistically receive the support they need to succeed–socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and academically. Without every piece in place, trying to teach them reading, math, and science will never get through.

Our responsibility to these children goes beyond tolerating their presence in a school that is not designed to equip them for success. Our responsibility is to truly give them their best chance to succeed–even if that means teaching them how to breathe through a hot moment before starting a math lesson, or how to put their big emotions into words or pictures through a writing lesson or an art class.

At House of Providence, we don’t abide by the status quo–especially when it says that children have no chance at success. We have spent more than a decade caring for our most traumatized and broken children in foster care and pioneering new and better ways to help them reach their full potential. Through our inpatient mental health and behavioral stabilization program, children who typically face the worst outcomes in foster care are finding hope, healing, and permanent families at rates the status quo in foster care would say are impossible.

Academically, children typically come to us several grade levels behind with a defeatist mindset towards school. They’ve never succeeded and are convinced that they’re hopelessly stupid with no chance at success.

In response, we have developed a highly individualized, data-driven educational model that meets these children where they are and truly gives them the chance to succeed. We see children learn to love school, make major strides toward catching up, and grow immensely in their confidence.

In collaboration with Oxford Public schools, Providence Academy is a developmental kindergarten through 8th grade school that extends the data-driven educational model that has helped so many children at HOP out to other children in the community who have similar needs in school. Where children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 plans are the outliers at traditional schools, Providence Academy is designed specifically for these students. It is set to open its doors in fall of 2023!

Until Every Child Has A Chance

At enrollment, every child is thoroughly assessed to determine their current grade level in each subject as well as their specific learning style. This information is put together in what we call a learning profile, which equips teachers to give them developmental grade level material in the format they are best able to receive it; children who learn best visually will receive tailored lessons that play to their visual processing strength; kinesthetic learners will be given multi-sensory lessons; etc.

Our programs, classes, and facilities are tailored to support these different learning styles and offer therapeutic outlets for students. We will have an outdoor classroom, a sensory room, and a therapy room. Extracurricular courses like art and therapy will be subtly infused with therapeutic strategy to support students.

Each classroom is limited to 10 students with 1 teacher and 2 behavioral specialists, and all staff at Providence Academy are trained in Trust Based Relational Intervention® (TBRI) to connect compassionately with children from hard places.

The social atmosphere enables children to build confidence in relationships. Teachers are supportive and loving in the midst of behaviors that typically result in isolation for these children, and other students have a capacity to understand their background behavior and challenges in a way that bridges the gap between them. Instead of feeling isolated and like an outlier, they grow within a strong community of support where they can practice healthier relationship tools without shame.

Each student will also have access to optional therapy services, and parents are offered a weekly support group. So many of these parents feel alone in their struggles and defeated in connecting with their child. These resources give them a social support group that understands their struggles and equips them with trauma-informed tools to transform their relationship with their child.

Our SOAR program will be offered as an after school program in which children are matched with a mentor to help them set and achieve goals in overcoming obstacles in their lives, achieving academic success, and learning how to practice responsibility and respect. They are also matched with another community mentor to take part in service learning.

The environment and structure of Providence Academy is designed to holistically support children with extreme needs and their families in ways that create success in every area of their lives. We’re entering the areas where hopelessness has reigned and offering our hand to support these children and families in reaching their full potential. 

Families in our community who have exhausted all other educational options are already lining up to enroll–and we are so excited to be able to serve them with excellence. This is only the beginning of extending a model that will change the lives of countless children and families–Until Every Child Has A Chance.

You can help us give these kids a chance.

We are raising $1Million dollars to open our state of the art school in fall of 2023. We are beyond grateful for your generosity and support in changing outcomes for children who desperately need the opportunity to succeed in school--and in life!

Give to the mission here.

Until every child has a home

We exist to instill hope in children who have only known the intense instability of foster care by emulating the unconditional love of a healthy family to them.

Give Now