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 Helping Students Overcome Severe Trauma

The walls are calming, pastel colors. There are healthy green plants around. Sometimes there's even the smell of essential oils in the air. 

It's not what you'd expect in a classroom at juvenile hall. But it's exactly what the 19 boys in the Trauma Responsive Unit at Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility need.

In that unit, students get a variety of extra supports in and out of the classroom. 

"What we're trying to do is work with them in a very short period of time to equip them with some skills and some insight to help them better deal with the symptoms of their trauma," said Sean Scott, a supervisor with the county Probation Department. 

SDCOE runs the educational program in the facility as part of Juvenile Court and Community Schools' San Diego SOAR Academy.

The two teachers in the Trauma Responsive Unit classroom — Ellen De La Cruz and Martha Jordan — work closely with the county Probation and Health and Human Services departments to help students there cope with severe trauma from their past.

"This unit is more of a calm environment," said a 15-year-old student who has been in the unit for a couple of months. "This place helps you calm down and see things differently. They want to help you, and they want to make you feel better."

The experience in the unit focuses on reducing the fight or flight instinct in students who have suffered trauma, offering them extra incentives, a more therapeutic environment, guest speakers, and more opportunities for self-expression.

Students in the unit have gotten the opportunity to take yoga classes, play guitar, learn about mindfulness, create art, participate in pet therapy, and write poetry. 

"Doing the art and aromatherapy and yoga has really calmed me down," said a 13-year-old who has been in the unit on and off for about a year. The skills he's learned in that time will help him wherever he goes, he said. 

These experiences are new for many of the students. 

"A lot of the boys are resistant to yoga when they first hear about it," De La Cruz said. "But after they do it, they buy into it."

Some of them ended up liking yoga so much that they've volunteered to help teach the class and pick the poses.

The collaborative art projects have been especially helpful, De La Cruz said.

"You can just see the students calm down as they're creating the art," she said. 

Most students stay in the unit for about a month, though some can stay longer if they continue to need the extra services. The unit only includes boys at this point, but there are plans to open a similar unit for girls soon.

As part of the intake process for the detention facility, youth complete an assessment to determine their mental health needs. They are offered the chance to join the Trauma Responsive Unit if the assessment shows they would benefit. Taking part in the program is voluntary, and there's typically a waiting list. 

The unit started in 2016. It's believed to be the first of its kind in California.

San Diego SOAR Academy is part of SDCOE's Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) program, which provides a fully accredited educational program for school-age youth who are either wards of the court or have been referred by social services, probation, or a school district. Services are provided to youth who are incarcerated, pregnant or parents, in foster care, expelled, chronically truant, in drug treatment centers and group homes for neglected or abused children, and experiencing homelessness.

The philosophy of the Trauma Responsive Unit goes hand in hand with the JCCS philosophy of providing a rigorous, meaningful educational experience while implementing restorative and trauma-informed practices, said Tracy Thompson, JCCS executive director.

The bottom line is that what's happening in the unit is making a positive difference for students, De La Cruz said.

"It's a good feeling to see them using the tools and growing and developing," she said.