The teacher asked her fourth-graders to sit in a circle and rate their feelings from one to 10.
Christopher Bland clenched his fists. He ripped a piece of paper to shreds. As his classmates spoke, he rocked back and forth.
Tonia Rowe-Russell made a mental note: Keep an eye on this one, usually so smiley, eager to please.
He stopped writing during writing time. She asked what was on his mind. His baby sister died that summer, he told her. She hadn’t known.
Her mom had passed away, she said. She shared a silly memory and asked if he could think of one. He drew himself and his sister atop a colorful castle, surrounded by trees.
They put that picture — and one of her mother — on an “In Loving Memory” wall next to his desk. It seemed to calm him.
But Rowe-Russell knew from 19 years of teaching at South L.A.’s West Athens Elementary School that when her students experience trauma, it needs to be addressed before they can concentrate and learn. She also realized that as a teacher with about 30 kids in her class, she couldn’t provide all the necessary emotional support.
So she turned to Jonathan Vickburg, the therapist who has come to West Athens twice a week for about six years, to provide art-based group counseling through a program called Share and Care, funded and run by the Cedars-Sinai Psychological Trauma Center.
The teacher hoped that the 45 minutes each week -- talking about coping mechanisms, drawing out feelings -- could help Christopher regain confidence and focus. She hoped he could learn a few tools and in some way come to terms with his sister’s death — so that as he grew up and other bad things happened, he wouldn’t have to resort to anger.
Christopher is one of about 640,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Many — particularly in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods — have experienced traumatic events.
All but 2% of about 850 students surveyed in the 2015-16 school year had experienced some form of trauma by fifth grade, said Pia Escudero, the district’s director of school mental health.
But though the district regularly ships counselors to schools after large-scale traumas such as shootings, there’s less consistency day to day, week to week.
If a school wants an on-site social worker, it can use its budget to hire from a pool of about 375 employed by the district, Escudero said. But school budgets and priorities fluctuate annually.
The need for timely trauma counseling has been recognized nationally, with President Obama calling for more mental health resources for children.
Scientists have studied the effects of trauma and chronic stress on children's behavior and health since the 1980s. But in the last two decades, said Marleen Wong, a professor in the the USC School of Social Work, researchers have shown how trauma affects children’s brain development and can change the way they are able to process information.
A group of students and teachers sued the Compton Unified School District last year, trying to get the school system to better serve kids who have experienced trauma. Now lawyers say the district and plaintiffs are negotiating to put together a plan.
In Los Angeles, Share and Care has been trying to help since 1994 — but with 13 counselors in 28 schools, serving about 600 students, it’s hard to make a significant dent. Share and Care also does not seek out students who have post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. The program instead tries to reach students early, before their behavior and academics are seriously affected.
Each Wednesday morning for 12 weeks, Christopher and the three boys who became his closest friends at school filed into a portable classroom at the back of the West Athens campus.
Erik Salceda’s parents had separated, Daniel Hernandez was being bullied and had shut down in class, Angel Jayat’s grandfather was sick.
Angel Jayat, 10, enjoys using the singing bowl. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times) View more photos
In one corner of the classroom, Vickburg had created a safe space — anchored by a round table in front of a “feelings tree” board. On the tree’s construction-paper leaves, children had had scrawled their states of mind: “awesome,” “happy,” “nervous.”
Sessions began with the singing bowl. Christopher tapped it with a stick, and they silently listened to the tone produced. When the reverberation stopped, they raised their hands.
“If you focus intently on that [sound], all this background noise goes away for a second,” Vickburg, a licensed marriage and family therapist, explained after the class. “The body can relax.” Knowing how to relax can help a traumatized student greatly in times of stress.
“It’s fight, flight or freeze, and we get stuck,” he said. “We can’t think in that moment. If a teacher asked a student a question, ‘What’s five times nine?’ and the student starts feeling stressed, in their mind, in that part of their brain, it’s thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve experienced this stress before. That happened when I saw this car accident. That happened when somebody was killed.’”
Without tools, in such a moment, he said, a child can be “retraumatized over and over again.”
Background noise banished, the boys tossed around a ball covered with words: “generous,” “brave,” “surprised,” “defeated.” Each time one of them caught it, he had to try to describe an experience related to the word nearest one of his thumbs.
During, one session, Vickburg asked them to draw an image showing a time they were in trouble, a moment when something bad happened.
Erik asked, “What’s that feeling when everyone’s laughing at you when something’s happened to you?”
“Embarrassed,” said Christopher.
“Embarrassed, yes, thank you.”
Traumas can layer upon each other, their effects growing more dense and deep.
Christopher felt protective toward his mother long before his sister died. His parents were together until he was 5. When they fought, the small boy would yell at his father to leave. When his sister died, he was strong for his mother. He kept his feelings inside.
Fosha responds to discomfort the same way her son does -- her mouth curves into a sweet smile and her voice lowers. That’s what happens when she’s asked about her daughter, a subject she tries to avoid.
Kali was born on April 8, 2015. On July 2, she left her home for the last time. The infant and her parents spent almost all of July in hospitals — one night at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, the rest 30 miles from home at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. She was born with a weakened immune system and then caught an airborne virus.
For weeks, Kali was attached to machine that pumped her blood. She endured multiple surgeries.
Sometimes Christopher and his younger brothers, Jayden and Sean, would visit. They spent Jayden’s eighth birthday in the hospital. The next day, Kali died.
Fosha said she doesn’t remember much, not even who got her boys ready for the funeral. She did not talk about what happened.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to say the words,” she said.
At home, she slept in Christopher’s bed, unable to return to the room she’d shared with the baby.
Together, the boys remembered how the baby laughed at everything, how their grandmother said that one day they’d see her again in a different life. But trying to be comforting, the boys did not mention their sister to their mother.
At Share and Care, Christopher learned to breathe -- “sniff the flower, blow out the candle,” as Vickburg told them. Christopher learned how to talk about his feelings instead of holding them in.
Christopher Bland stands outside of his classroom at West Athens Elementary in South L.A. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times) View more photos
His grades didn’t improve much from the first to the second semester. He still struggled with math. But his end-of-year report commended his effort, confidence and leadership skills.
Rowe-Russell noticed that Christopher could now write four or five paragraphs on a topic, not just a few sentences. He could stand up and present in front of the class. He talked about wanting to be captain of the football team in gym. He spoke of running for class president so he could start chess and basketball clubs.
He made friends and at home, instead of getting angry, he began telling his mother what was on his mind.
And even though Christopher is in fifth grade, his old teacher plans to keep an eye on him, as she does all her flock.
Credits: Production by Andrea Roberson