After a hall monitor was shot in February at Frederick Douglass High School during lunchtime, students from the West Baltimore school testified at City Hall about the trauma they and their classmates have witnessed up close during their short lives — at school, on the street, at home.
Their stories inspired City Councilman Zeke Cohen to draft a bill, which he will introduce during Monday’s council meeting, aimed at making Baltimore a “trauma-responsive city.” The legislation calls for all agencies that interact with children and families to be equipped with training and resources to respond to the difficult realities that many in Baltimore face.
“Our legislation would direct city agencies to rewrite policies and procedures with an eye toward reducing harm. We will convene a diverse work group whose mission is to promote healing,” Cohen wrote in an op-ed for The Baltimore Sun. “And finally, our Health Department will help train frontline staff to recognize and effectively respond to trauma.”
Cohen’s bill calls for the creation of a “Trauma-Informed Care Task Force,” a workgroup consisted of city council members, students, parents and clinicians. He envisions the group crafting a citywide strategy on how to make Baltimore government responsive to trauma, developing training and disseminating best practices for how to mitigate the affects of children’s painful experiences.
His legislation also mandates that representatives from a slew of city agencies — from the fire department to the department of recreation and parks — undergo formal training from the Health Department on how to best recognize and respond to children dealing with trauma, with the expectation they bring the lessons back to their wider agency. Cohen says they are still working to determine how much this will cost.
Cohen says that at some of the city’s rec centers, for example, misbehaving children can be kicked out by frustrated staff members. These staff members, while well-intentioned, may not understand difficulties the child may be experiencing, or how those difficulties manifest in the child’s behavior.
“We know that for a lot of our young people, that time at the rec center is their only safe place throughout the day,” he said. “To kick them out, that can actually exacerbate their trauma."
More than half of Baltimore youth have gone through what’s dubbed an “adverse child experience” — anything from witnessing a violent crime to extreme poverty or losing a parent, data show.
Bryonna Harris, 16, was one of the Douglass students who worked with Cohen to draft the legislation. She’s come to City Hall several times during the summer to meet with officials and activists to get the language right.
“It makes me feel like I have an actual voice that deserves to be heard,” she said of the legislative process.
She knows real change stemming from the bill may take years to achieve, long after she’s graduated. Still, it’s reassuring to see Cohen champion the idea.
“It says, ‘We’re here for you,’” she said. “This isn’t something that takes a day or two or even a couple years. It’s a gradual building.”