For kids who have lived through, or are currently living through, the trauma of domestic violence, school can be the last thing on their minds. How can one concentrate on long division, Catcher in the Rye or the periodic table of elements when their life is in upheaval? It’d be a lot to ask of an adult, and it’s an impossible ask for most children.
It’s why kids of childhood domestic violence, or CDV, can sometimes act out or shut down. It’s why they can’t trust teachers and may lash out. It’s why they’re defiant, angry or completely withdrawn. And in Austin, Texas, a pioneering school, accurately called the SAFE School, is looking to address that.
Started in 2001 by The SAFE Alliance, the kindergarten through 12th grade charter school is for those children who are living or have previously lived in a SAFE residential facility, including their emergency shelter or transitional housing. While the University of Texas Charter system provides the academics, SAFE supplies the advocates and counselors to give kids the social, emotional and behavioral support they so urgently need.
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Keeping Kids Away from Abuser
The one-of-a-kind school addresses both the trauma aspect and also the safety concerns of protective parents who don’t know if their child will be safe returning to their same school where an abusive parent may find them.
“The abuser may still have joint custody,” says Andrea Menchaca, SAFE’s Director of Schools and Educational Services, and some abusers will exploit that fact. Cue the power and control dynamic. Abusers have been known to show up at school and take a child out of spite, or to worry the protective parent, or to use the child as a pawn in an argument.
“Outside of a protective order, there’s not a whole lot stopping an abuser,” says Menchaca.
As a result, some protective parents will pull their children out of school in order to protect them. The SAFE School allows the children to still be in a protected and confidential location while continuing their education. The school is literally across the parking lot of SAFE’s emergency shelter. And teachers and staff are on high alert for possible safety concerns. “Staff routinely safety plan with students, processing in child-appropriate language, how to stay safe should an unsafe situation arise,” says Menchaca.
Treating Trauma in Class
When a child doesn’t feel safe at home, they’re not going to feel safe outside of the home either, Menchaca explains.
“A lot of our kids have experienced trauma at the hands of someone who should have been taking care of them, so they don’t trust adults,” says Menchaca. “It can be really hard to be successful in a school setting.”
Instead of fighting against this, Menchaca explains that the school doesn’t expect the children to have trust immediately.
“We work very hard to connect and build trust with youth, which often involves seeing the need behind a child’s behavior. Rather than responding to unwanted behavior punitively, staff assist students in understanding how they were feeling when that behavior occurred, and teach strategies for the next time those feelings arise,” she explains. “Every day, and even hour, is a clean slate and a fresh start. In order to earn their trust, students must feel connected and safe enough to make mistakes and still be supported and cared for.”
Ensuring Future Success
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At any one time, there are about 50 children attending the SAFE School. And they all have a common tie that binds them, a fact that can be helpful to some and difficult for others.
“Our kids have an understanding that they’re all there for a reason. It’s really hard for them to talk about it among their peers,” says Menchaca, adding that helping the kids engage with their peers and be open about what they’re going through is part of the healing process as well.
This year saw the most high school graduates in the school’s history—five teens graduated in the fall and another three in spring.
“We’re so proud of our high school students. We have some youth that are in foster care and some in the shelter, and they tend to be behind academically. We really hone in on, when those kids get to us, how we can we help them catch up on those credits.”
Outside of the SAFE School, the Austin shelter also reaches kids through several public school programs, that start as early as elementary school and continue up into high school. One is called their Expect Respect program, which teaches teens what a healthy dating relationship should look like.
For more information on CDV, see our Childhood Domestic Violence section.
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