Joshua Dillen
The Baker City Herald

Trauma-informed care is the basis for helping students succeed in their education at a new program for certain students at Baker High School.

About 15 students at the high school’s Opportunity Center are benefitting from a $200,000 state grant that is funding a position to develop the program, which is in its infancy.

While the program was implemented this school year, the behavioral issues it aims to overcome were noticed several years ago.

Chelsea Hurliman, BHS vice principal observed several years ago how some students had a tendency to “blow up in class.”

“The normal person is looking at it and saying ‘Well, that’s silly, why would you do that?’ ”she said. “When you start digging into it, it’s things that are going on at home.

“It’s things that are going on in their heads. They have no control over it and so they end up blowing up,” she said.

Then Hurliman watched the film “Paper Tigers.” It’s about an alternative high school at Walla Walla, Washington, which has embraced the concept of trauma-informed care, an approach developed as a result of a published study by Robert Anda, Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist, and Dr. Vincent Felitti, a clinical physician.

The publication, “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) Study,” revealed a troubling but irrefutable phenomenon: The more traumatic experiences the respondents had as children (such as physical and emotional abuse and neglect), the more likely they were to develop health problems later in life — problems such as cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure, according to the film’s website.

According to the CDC, childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. As such, early experiences are an important public health issue.

It also has a profound effect on how a student learns and deals with school.

Hurliman explained how the principal at the high school in Walla Walla used a trauma-informed approach to help students when they act out instead of disciplinary actions like detention or suspension.

“He’d bring them in and ask them ‘What’s going on today? Are you stressed? Where you at? What can we do?’ ” she said.

The concept is designed to fix the problem and keep them in school — a proactive approach rather than a reactive one when it comes to disciplinary action.

“It really facilitates fixing the problem, keeping them in school and getting them back in the classroom,” Hurliman said.

Her observations of some students acting out at BHS prompted Hurliman to pursue the application and eventually to getting the state grant with the help of former BHS Principal Jerry Peacock to fund and develop the Opportunity Program.

“We’ve got to do something,” she said. “I can’t handle this anymore — these guys coming in and just (acting out) over stuff that just seemed really silly to me.

“I’m not going to suspend a kid for losing it because he didn’t eat last night ... That’s counterintuitive. We want to keep them in school,” she said.

The center is designed to help the students develop skills to help them deal with what’s going on in their lives, to have a safe place to come to and to teach them in a way that they can learn to be successful in their education.

The Opportunity Center is structured in a way that teaches the bulk of their subjects in one half-day class and allows them to take electives for the other half of the day. Those electives can be career-technical classes at Baker Technical Institute.

The grant enabled the hiring of Rob Dennis as a community liaison who helps coordinate the program and connect students with programs offered in the community such as mental health services, drug and alcohol counseling or other services they might benefit from.

“My job is to ... interact with all the different people that offer services to kids in the community to make sure our kids know what is available to them and are able to access them if they want them,” Dennis said.

He said he helps the kids to learn how to help themselves as well as working with various organizations to get the kids the specialized help they need. Dennis said about five or six of the students in the program are already getting counseling services that they would not have connected with if they were not in the program.

Dennis also helps Annie Fale, the Opportunity Center’s teacher, in the classroom.

“Annie handles the teaching, I kind of try to handle more of the discipline stuff,” Dennis said.

While he does help with some of the teaching, he is the one who will deal with a student who is having behavioral issues, allowing Fale to continue teaching the class.

That discipline isn’t the typical scenario where a student is immediately sent to the principal’s office.

“I can take them into the other room, find out what’s going on, get them re-regulated and get them back in our classroom,” Dennis said.

He explained that if a kid hasn’t eaten all weekend and the teacher asks him to come to the chalkboard to do a problem he might respond with a curse word and throw the book.

“That’s not an appropriate response,” Dennis said. “It is if you realize the kid is starving. He’s trying to figure out how he’s going to eat.”

Read more in the Monday, Nov. 6, 2017 issue of the Baker City Herald.