CPS is giving superficial attention to the issue of social-emotional learning, but will not commit resources to do the job right. The lack of social workers in CPS is appalling—the district has about 20% of the what the National Association of Social Workers recommends. Psychologists, school nurses, and counselors are in short supply as well, and class sizes in Chicago are among the highest in the state. This, in a school population where a majority of students live in neighborhoods characterized by high levels of poverty, unemployment, lack of affordable housing and other issues associated with trauma. Instead of investing in resources to address trauma, CPS gives tens of millions of dollars to “investors”. Banks get paid on both ends—tax breaks (which result in less money for schools) and interest when the district then has to borrow money.

INTRODUCTION: Fifth Graders’ Experiences with Violence

This past June, as part of a project with Action-Based Community’s ABC Project, one fifth grade class at McCutcheon Elementary School examined gun violence within their neighborhood. For their study, the students surveyed 129 classmates. Out of 129 students, 82 percent had seen or heard a shooting and 61 percent had felt scared to go outside.i Others expressed anxieties and fear of losing a loved one or a family member. Throughout the process, students conducted interviews with staff and parents to see if and how gun violence had touched their lives. What the students ultimately discovered were the unseen effects gun violence had in their school and community.


ACEs Study

The study found that childhood experiences of abuse, neglect, family dysfunction, experiences of poverty, housing instability, extreme discrimination and community violence all had the capacity to impair development on the brain and body.

The narrative that McCutcheon’s students discovered can be found throughout Chicago. Today, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) serves more than 381,349 students across 664 schools.ii Out of its total student population, more than 80 percent have been identified as low-income.iii These students come from some of the most disinvested neighborhoods on Chicago’s West and South Sides where communities have long suffered racial segregation resulting in high levels of poverty, unemployment, lack of affordable housing and community violence. For families and children within these communities, access to basic resources like healthy food options and trauma centers is limited. One way to combat the effects segregation and disinvestment has had on these communities is through creating a positive school environment that meets students’ physical, social and mental health needs. When CPS cuts vital wrap around services like school social workers, school psychologists and school nurses, everyone from students, parents and teachers suffer.

In 1998 the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, along with Kaiser Permanente, conducted the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study to examine how life stressors and traumatic experiences, like gun violence, affected life outcomes. The study found that childhood experiences of abuse, neglect, family dysfunction, experiences of poverty, housing instability, extreme discrimination and community violence all had the capacity to impair development on the brain and body.iv These adverse childhood experiences can interfere with a child’s ability to learn, think, organize their thoughts and affect their memory.v The more adverse childhood experiences a child has, the greater risk for chronic disease, mental illness, and violence later in life.vi


Results from the ACE study concluded that for an individual with four or more adverse childhood experiences, they were 7 times more likely to end up in prison, 2 times more likely to suffer from a stroke or cancer and 12 times more likely to attempt suicide. Within the school setting, a youth who has three or more ACEs is 2.5 times more likely to fail a grade, be labeled as special education, be suspended, be expelled or drop out of school.vii However, results also showed that adverse childhood experiences can be offset by one thing; the presence of a stable, caring adult.viii

Alternatives To Discipline

Ask questions like:

  • Wow. Are you OK?
  • This doesn’t sound like you.
  • What’s going on?
  • You really looked stressed.
  • On a scale of 1-10, where are you with your anger?


For one high school in Eastern Washington, the results of the ACE study were eye opening. Jim Sporleder, a principal at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington, made it his mission to create a trauma-informed environment for his students. For years, Lincoln High School struggled with school discipline. Between 2009 and 2010 there were 798 suspensions, 50 expulsions and 600 written referrals.ix Many of Lincoln High School’s students had experienced homelessness, lost a loved one, suffered from depression or had an immediate family member in jail.x For these students, the chaos outside of school was affecting their everyday life. After attending a conference on the ACE study, Sporleder found the language and framework he needed to support his students.

By creating a trauma-informed environment, adults within the school were given the tools to recognize and respond to youth affected by traumatic stress. Instead of disciplining a student for acting out, staff would ask, “Wow. Are you OK? This doesn’t sound like you. What’s going on?” or “You really looked stressed. On a scale of 1-10, where are you with your anger?”xi To create a trauma-informed environment, school administrators at Lincoln High School focused on building youth resiliency factors. Resiliency factors included social connectedness, teaching social and emotional competence and providing concrete support for students.xii


A way of providing concrete support for students was through the creation of an onsite health center with the overall mission being to advance students success through addressing their physical, emotional and social needs. Staff within the health center include multiple social workers, care coordinators and medical providers each one equipped in order to meet students’ needs. Outside of the health center, support staff on the high school campus include multiple intervention specialists and drug and alcohol counselors that are able to support youth dealing with multiple life stressors.xiii

Since implementing its trauma sensitive approach and creation of the onsite health center, Lincoln High School has seen outstanding results. Since 2010 there has been a 60 percent decline in office referrals, 75 percent fewer fights and 90 percent fewer suspensions.xiv What made Lincoln High School’s story successful was that they not only created a trauma informed narrative but, that they had the adequate staff in order to support youth; social workers, intervention specialist, medical providers, and drug and alcohol counselors.


School social workers and other clinical staff are essential in creating a supportive school environment. Within schools, social workers not only provide direct services but also lead prevention efforts that support children through building the capacity of family members, school staff, and the community.xv For example within Lincoln High School, social workers are able to provide individual counseling, group therapy, provide anger management education and emotional regulation and provide crisis support during school hours. A Parkway School District teacher in St. Louis once said, “I cannot teach the head when the heart is broken or the mind is troubled.”xvi For teachers, school social workers can provide the resources to prepare a youth dealing with life stressors for the classroom.


The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recommends one social worker (with a masters’ degree to every building with 250 general education students (1:250). For students with intensive needs (those with IEPS), the ratio becomes 1:50. CPS is far from meeting the NASW recommended ratio with roughly only 300 school social workers within CPS.


CPS aims to meet the emotional needs of its students through the Office of Social Emotional Learning (OSEL). According to the department, the office works with schools to establish multi-tiered systems of support for students’ social, emotional, and behavioral development.xvii However, at the same time, since 2002 CPS has had more than a 22 percent decline in school social work positions, leaving schools without proper mental health supports.xviii In spring of 2017, CPS had only 321 school social worker positions.xix Out of the 321 positions, 10.3 percent were vacant.xx This number does not include the number of social workers that have already been laid off this summer due to cut backs.

When social worker positions are cut children, schools and the community suffers. With social services losing funding and mental health facilities closing, schools have become the de facto mental health system for children. On average, only one quarter of children in need of mental health services receive them. For those that do receive services, 70-80% receive services in schools.xxi


To support teachers and other school personnel, the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation’s Quest Center for Professional Development has been providing classes around trauma-sensitive practices within the classroom and the effects of secondary traumatic stress on school personnel. The courses were created as a response to the SEL trainings provided by CPS and lack of support. Instead of just focusing on standards of social emotional learning the Quest Center focuses on strategies teachers and other school personal can use in order to create a trauma informed classroom and school setting. Since its creation, classes have been packed with teachers and other personnel, eager to learn about the different traumas facing students and strategies they can use within the school setting. In the courses, teachers and other school staff focus on everything from what is complex trauma, the role of the teacher, and classroom strategies in addressing the adverse effects of trauma and stress in the classroom. The classes have gained fantastic feedback with teachers requesting longer and more frequent courses.

However, when schools cut clinical mental health positions, students are denied access to care. Social and emotional learning as a core component of education can offer students a way to express themselves; however, no program will succeed on its own without clinical personnel to back it.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recommends one social worker (with a masters’ degree) to every building with 250 general education students (1:250). For students with intensive needs (those with IEPS), the ratio becomes 1:50. CPS is far from meeting the NAWS recommend ratio with roughly only 300 school social workers within CPS.


In 2016, a survey was sent out by CTU’s education policy department asking school psychologists and social workers about their personal experience working with CPS. Survey results showed that 70 percent of school social workers managed cases across two schools and another 21 percent managed cases at three different schools.xxii One school social worker reported feeling overwhelmed as she has been spread thin across two schools. At both schools she had two team days leaving her three days to oversee her case load of 70 children. Outside of providing services to students on her case load, she is expected to conduct Tier 1 interventions, evaluations and deliver services to general education students, leaving her little time for self-care.xxiii For social workers like the one above, high worker demands and resource limited situations leaves service personal at greater risk for secondary traumatic stress.

For school social workers, school psychologists, teachers, and other help professionals, the act of listening to trauma narratives and the lack of supportive systemic resources can take an emotional toll diminishing their quality of life. For some, this may appear in the form of secondary traumatic stress. The symptoms of secondary traumatic stress include hyper vigilance, sleeplessness, fear, guilt, inability to listen, chronic exhaustion, physical ailments and avoidance of clients.xxiv When service personnel are emotionally and physically depleted client care can be compromised.

To address the toxic stress many students are facing, the city of Chicago ultimately needs to invest in underserved communities and stop perpetuating the segregation that is deeply rooted within Chicago’s history. Every community deserves access to safe public transit, affordable housing, and fair employment. Chicago students deserve schools that are stable and nurture the students mentally, psychically and emotionally. For students like the ones at McCutcheon who have been affected by life stressors access to a school social worker gives students a resiliency factor against toxic stress. If CPS genuinely wants to meet the social and emotional needs of its students, then CPS must recognize the importance of providing every student with proper access to school social workers and vital wrap around services.

Works Cited
i.McCutheon Elementary- Room 203. (2017). ABC Project- Gun Violence in Uptown. ABC Project Action-Based Communities.
ii.CPS Stats and Facts School Data (2016-2017)
iv.Felitti, Vincent J et al. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 14 (Issue 4), 245-258
v.Center for Disease Control and Prevention, NPR Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
vi.Stevens, Jane Ellen (ed.). ACEs Science 101. ACEs Too High, 20 Apr. 2017, https://acestoohigh.com/aces-101/..
vii.The Illinois ACEs Response Collaborative. (2016). Education Brief: ACEs for Educators and Stakeholders. Chicago, IL. Health & Medicine Policy Research Group
ix.Stevens, J. E. (2015, May 30). Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tries new approach to school discipline — suspensions drop 85%. Retrieved July 16, 2017, from https://acestoohigh.com/2012/04/23/lincoln-high-school-in-walla-walla-wa-tries-new-approach-to-school-discipline-expulsions-drop-85/.
xv.Who are Social Workers? (n.d.). Retrieved July, 2017, from http://www.naswdc.org/pressroom/features/who_are_sw.asp.
xvi.The Social Worker’s Role. (n.d.). Retrieved August, 2017, From http://www.sswaa.org/?page=721.
xvii.CASEL. (2015). Social and Emotional Learning Planning for Financial Sustainability Case Study Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Chicago, IL.
xviii.CTU analysis of 2002-2016 CPS Position Files, retrieved via FOIA request from CPS.
xix.CTU analysis of 2017 CPS Position Files, retrieved via FOIA request from CPS.
xxi.Cicchetti, C., Dunlap, S. (2015). Building a Trauma-Informed School: A Three-Tiered Approach. Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
xxii.CTU analysis of 2016 survey results.
xxiv.Perry, B. (2014). The Cost of Caring Secondary Traumatic Stress and the Impact of Working with High-Risk Children and Families. Houston, TX.