Image Description: this image features two illustrated hands, both red with white outlines against a plain white background. The hand on the right is outstretched with its palm facing up, while the hand on the left appears to be reaching back.
On Jan. 20, the UCLA Pritzker Center hosted a speaker session focusing on K-12 education and domestic violence as a part of their four-part series on “Exploring Child Welfare & Domestic Violence.” Speakers from various public schools and school districts in California discussed what educators and the education system can do to support students and their families when met with the issue of domestic violence. The recording of the webinar is available on Youtube.
One major issue posed by the speakers is that it is difficult for students to be fully transparent about their family issues and for educators to accurately pick up on signs of domestic violence. Pia Escudero, executive director of Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) Division of Student Health & Human Services, said that our current education system doesn’t always allow schools to discern when domestic violence is occurring.
For example, schools might assume that academic setbacks are caused by learning disabilities and end up directing struggling students to special education rather than figuring out what they might be facing at home, said Escudero.
What contributes to this lack of transparency is the difficulty in establishing trust between students and educators, explained Tricia Gillikin, assistance support advisor for LAUSD. Students often want to express their struggles, but they do not want to face the consequences of doing so, which include mandatory reports to law enforcement, removal from their home, being placed in foster care, or facing homelessness.
For example, the trust between Gillikin and a student broke when Gillikin had to report the student’s domestic violence situation to law enforcement, and the student was angered that her father was removed from the family. Fortunately, the school had other adult figures to support that student, said Gillikin.
This incident highlights the importance of providing students abundant resources both on campus and off campus. Even if students do not feel comfortable speaking to someone within the school, they should at least have outside sources (e.g., therapists, social workers) to seek help from, emphasized Dr. Michele Bowers, superintendent of Lancaster School District.
“It takes a lot of bridging to build trust with students and be the support figures that they might lack at home,” said Christine Shen, director of UCLA Community Schools Initiative.
Another issue posed by Escudero is that too many expectations are placed solely on teachers; teachers are expected to encourage students’ participation, ensure students’ safety, and address issues like poverty and hunger — all in addition to teaching academically.
To mitigate these issues, schools need to build more connections with trained professionals like counselors, psychologists, and other social workers to ensure that there are enough resources for students, suggested Jullie Eutsler, director of Safety & Attendance for Lancaster School District. Students have also been more open and communicative with teachers and counselors virtually, which shows that there are multiple ways to encourage students to reach out for help, Eutsler added.
It is also important to educate parents and guardians as a way of reducing domestic violence. Trish Wilson, coordinator for Climate, Culture and Counselors for Lancaster School District, mentioned that their counselors have offered caregiver trainings that educate on the topic of self-care and coping with stress.
Overall, there needs to be more funding and resources for families, educators, and schools. “We really are burdening our families with so much stress and so much anxiety, especially today with poverty and [in]access[ibility] to healthcare,” said Escudero. Systemically, schools are underfunded but still expected to single-handedly lift up society. We must discuss these issues at the state and federal level and dedicate the same amount of time and resources to mental health and emotional relationships as we do to academics, added Dr. Bowers.
As Escudero worded perfectly, “Our children are a reflection of what they’re experiencing at home, in their communities, and in their country.” Therefore, we must approach these issues holistically and responsibly.