By Alysa M Perreras and Dr Emily Meadows
’What exactly do you hope to gain by trying to determine here what constitutes trauma?’
This was the question my therapist posed when, yet again, after sharing an experience I had in school, I would immediately follow with some version of, ’I mean, it is normal kid stuff. It’s not like I was abused or traumatized’.
The irony is not lost on me now that I would consistently try to minimize experiences I’d had in my schooling as “not traumatizing” while speaking about them in my adult life with a licensed therapist.
My sister and I were grateful to have a family that could rally the funds and make the necessary sacrifices for us to attend a private school, one highly celebrated for its academic excellence. This education positioned me well for success later in life and provided me with opportunities I may not have had if I had attended a local public school.
My sister and I were also two of maybe five children of color at that school with working class parents who had both immigrated to the United States from other countries. It meant I was often—in the cafeteria, on the soccer team, in youth group and in the classroom—reminded of my otherness.
While some of those instances were more innocuous than others, what I have realized is that what I had normalized as “just kid stuff”, often because that is how the adults in my school treated it, was actually deeply detrimental to my sense of self and resulted in identity-based harm that I would be unpacking in my therapist's office years later. And I am not the only one1.
An abundance of research explores racial battle fatigue2, the psychological stress caused by ongoing daily experiences of racism. Additional research highlights how identity-based marginalization in schools can lead to ongoing harm and trauma3 4. Yet, too many of our educational systems are not equipped with the knowledge and skills to address this type of harm.
Child safeguarding through an equity and belonging lens
Recommended language for schools and educational systems
We designed the language below for use by and for educational systems to guide those seeking to build more robust protections against harm in schools and strengthen existing child safeguarding measures.
You’ll find seven key texts, along with supporting evidence and resources.
We encourage you to use this language within your own policies and procedural documents and to pair the commitment with concrete measures to ensure implementation with fidelity throughout your communities.
This is a useful resource for those interested in and responsible for child safeguarding. The language can be adopted immediately so the focus will be on moving forward with relevant actions.
A. The school acknowledges that targeting a person based on identity markers such as race, color, ethnicity, caste, religion, gender identity, gender expression, sexual identity, national origin, citizenship status, socioeconomic status, age, language, or ability constitutes harm and abuse.
This statement recognizes that all societies worldwide operate within systems that perpetuate inequity, privileging some identities while marginalizing others5 6. These systems contribute to the burden that people with marginalized identities disproportionately carry7 8.
Therefore, targeting, erasing, or excluding a person based on their identity must be treated as harm and abuse.
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B. The school recognizes that marginalized identities are at particular risk for identity-based harm.
While any person may become a target of harm, research indicates a significant increase in risk for those with marginalized identities. Take, for example, the elevated rates, internationally, of bullying, harassment, and violence against LGBTQ+ people in schools9 10.
Schools must acknowledge that our educational communities are impacted by the systems that perpetuate inequity outside of the school11 12.
C. The school recognizes that, within the same systems where identity-based harm operates, marginalized identities are at higher risk of being targeted for sexual abuse.
Marginalizing identities within social systems creates multiple types of risk for identity-based harm, including the risk of sexual abuse.
LGBTQ+ youth, for example, have higher rates of being targeted for sexual harassment and sexual violence13 14. Black girls are also at increased risk of sexual abuse due to racial stereotyping and adultification15.
To ignore the impact of identity-based marginalization on the risk for harm is to fail those who are most vulnerable to abuse.
D. The school takes responsibility for preventing, interrupting and correcting identity-based harm.
A statement alone does not take the place of a functioning structure. It is necessary to ensure that the commitment to action related to mitigating identity-based harm is active and evident throughout the community16 17.
Child safeguarding originated to ensure all educational institutions recognize their responsibility to the well-being of the children in their care18, and to hold these institutions accountable for said care.
Failure to address these disparities is, in effect, a failure in comprehensive child safeguarding and opens a school up to the potential for greater harm.
E. Identity-based harm can manifest in many forms, including, but not limited to, microaggressions, hate speech, online harassment, child-to-child abuse, physical violence, and social exclusion.
While identity-based harm may show up as overt and explicit racism, misogyny, transnegativity, etc., this language is intended to encompass the many expressions of harm that propagate within contexts of social marginalization.
We encourage school communities to examine the various ways that marginalization is currently impacting systems and relationships and be open to the possibility that there is room for deeper awareness, growth, and healing therein.
F. Staff development will include training and resources on how to recognize and respond to identity-based harm.
As with any form of child safeguarding, prevention and response are more effective when those responsible know what to look for and what their role is in the process19 20.
As identity-based harm is becoming established as a normative component in safeguarding policies, employees will benefit from targeted, ongoing support to learn and apply these critical skills21.
G. The use of trauma-informed restorative practices may be part of addressing identity-based harm when appropriate. This approach is intended to maintain agency and dignity for the person who is targeted, as well as to build responsibility and accountability for the person who has committed the harm.
Restorative practices, as compared with exclusionary discipline, are intended to build community, strengthen relationships, and repair harm22.
Each situation will be different, and no single approach will necessarily be appropriate for all circumstances.
However, restorative practices have been successfully used to build equity in educational systems23 and, when carefully facilitated by trained professionals, may be part of a layered approach in responding to cases of identity-based harm in schools.
***CONTENT WARNING: Suicide***
As an LGBTQ+ consultant for international schools, I am distressed but not surprised that quite a number of clients call me initially because they are concerned about a student who is expressing suicidality, and the student is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or another identity beyond cisgender, heterosexual24.
My lack of surprise is because a robust body of research has already demonstrated the significant increase in risk for suicidal ideation and attempts amongst LGBTQ+ youth compared with their cisgender, heterosexual peers.
This reality has led to the misconception that being LGBTQ+ is inherently riskier than being straight.
It’s a misconception because there is nothing at all risky about an LGBTQ+ identity unless the social context around us is stigmatizing, marginalizing, and discriminatory of LGBTQ+ people.
Social conditions that foster identity-based harm contribute to an increased risk of negative mental health outcomes, including suicide25 26.
Indeed, these risks have been directly tied, in part, to the experiences of identity-based marginalization operating within schools27.
However, the converse of this negative relationship is that, when education systems actively and effectively work to reduce stigma and marginalization, the impact is significant: suicidality goes down28.
Let us not oblige another generation to work through their identity-based harm in therapy as adults; we can do better.
For schools intent on cultivating safety, we must understand how identity-based harm puts people with marginalized identities at risk of harm, and we must prevent and correct this inequity in our communities now.
About the authors:
Alysa M Perreras is Inclusion, Belonging, and Antiracist Consultant and Researcher, Inclusion Manager, Netflix LATAM and Doctoral Student, Education for Social Justice, University of San Diego.
Dr Emily Meadows PhD is an LGBTQ+ Consultant for International Schools
1 Williams, M.T., Holmes, S., Manzar, Z., Haeny, A., & Faber, S. (2022). An Evidence-based approach for treating stress and trauma due to racism. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpra.2022.07.001
2 Saleem, F.T., Howard, T.C., & Langley, A.K. (2021). Understanding and addressing racial stress and trauma in schools: A pathway toward resistance and healing. Psychology in the Schools, 1.
3 Call-Cummings, M. & Martinez, S. (2017). ‘It wasn’t racism; it was more misunderstanding.’ White teachers, Latino/a students, and racial battle fatigue. Race, Ethnicity & Education, 20(4), 561–574.
4 Killen, M. & Rutland, A. (2022). Promoting fair and just school environments: Developing inclusive youth. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9(1), 81–89.
5 Carroll, A. & Mendos, L. R. (2017). State-sponsored homophobia: A world survey of sexual orientation laws: Criminalization, protection and recognition. International Lesbian and Gay Association.
6 Foucault, M. (1980). In C. Gordon (Ed.), Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977. The Harvester Press.
7 Lorde, A. (1983). The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. In Moraga, C. & Anzaldua, G. (Eds.), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table Press.
8 Heron, B. “‘Global Citizenship’: A New Manifestation of Whiteness.” Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Journal, no. First Glimpse (2019): 1–14.
9 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (2016). Out in the open: Education sector responses to violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Paris, France: UNESCO.
10 Kosciw, J.G. (2016). International perspectives on homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools. Journal of LGBT Youth, 13(1-2), 1-5.
11 Iván Gelpi, G. & Montes de Oca, D. (2020). Heteronormatividad Institucional en Enseñanza Media: La Percepción De Los Adolescentes De Montevideo. Athenea Digital (Revista de Pensamiento e Investigación Social), 20(3), 1–26.
12 Allen, R.L. & Liou, D.D. (2019). Managing Whiteness: The Call for Educational Leadership to Breach the Contractual Expectations of White Supremacy. Urban Education, 54(5), 677–705.
13 Atteberry-Ash, B., Walls, N.E., Kattari, S.K, Peitzmeier, S.M., Kattari, L., & Langenderfer-Magruder, L. (2020). Forced sex among youth: Accrual of risk by gender identity, sexual orientation, mental health and bullying. Journal of LGBT Youth, 17(2), 193-213.
14 Smith, D.M., Johns, N.E., & Raj, A. (2022). Do sexual minorities face greater risk for sexual harassment, ever and at school, in adolescence?: Findings from a 2019 cross-sectional study of U.S. adults. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 37(3-4), NP1963-NP1987.
15 Thompson, M.K. (2022). Sexual Exploitation and the Adultified Black Girl. St. John’s Law Review, 94(4), 971–988.
16 EXPLOElevate. (2022). Making the hidden visible: The lived experience of DEIJ Practitioners in independent schools. Retrieved from: https://elevate.explo.org/making-the-hidden-visible-the-lived-experience-of-deij-practitioners-in-independent-schools/.
17 Irby, D., Green, T., Ishimaru, A., Clark, S.P., & Han, A. (2021). K-12 Equity Directors: Configuring the Role for Impact. Chicago, IL: Center for Urban Education Leadership.
18 Association of International Schools in Africa. (2014). Child Protection Handbook. Retrieved from: https://www.icmec.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/AISA-Child-Protection-Handbook-3rd-Edition.pdf
19 Draugedalen, K., Kleive, H., & Grov, Ø. (2021). Preventing harmful sexual behaviour in primary schools: Barriers and solutions. Child Abuse & Neglect, 121.
20 Tarr, J., Whittle, M., Wilson, J., & Hall, L. (2013). Safeguarding children and child protection education for UK trainee teachers in higher education. Child Abuse Review.
21 Watson, K. (2018). Addressing violence, trauma, and discrimination in the education system: An examination of the training needs of title IX coordinators [ProQuest Information & Learning]. In Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences (Vol. 79, Issue 8a).
22 Morrison, G.F. & Ristenberg, N. (2019). Reflections on twenty years of restorative justice in schools. In Osher, D., Mayer, M.J, Jagers, R.J., Kendziora, K. & Wood, L. (Eds.), Keeping students safe and helping them thrive: A collaborative handbook on school safety, mental health, and wellness (pp. 295-327). Praeger: Connecticut, USA.
23 Gomez, J.A., Rucinski, C.L., & Higgins-D’Alessandro, A. (2020). Promising pathways from school restorative practices to educational equity. Journal of Moral Education, 50(4), 452-470.
24 The Human Rights Campaign Foundation. (2022). Glossary of terms. Retrieved from: https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms.
25 Carson, J. (2018). Greater suicide in LGBT youth. Nature Human Behaviour, 2(12), 886.
26 Gorse, M. (2020). Risk and protective factors to LGBTQ+ youth suicide: A review of the literature. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 39(1), 17-28.
27 Jadva, V., Guasp, A., Bradlow, J.H., Bower-Brown, S., & Foley, S. (2021). Predictors of self-harm and suicide in LGBT youth: The role of gender, socio-economic status, bullying and school experience. Journal of Public Health. Oxford, England.
28 Hatzenbuehler, M.L., Birkett, M., Van Wagenen, A., & Meyer, I.H. (2014). Protective School Climates and Reduced Risk for Suicide Ideation in Sexual Minority Youths. American Journal of Public Health, 104(2), 279-286.
- Child protection
- Diversity (I-DEA)
- Student well-being