Not long after the last school bell rang at Bunche Middle School in Compton on a recent afternoon, the campus transformed from a regular middle school to dog obedience school.
A dozen students teamed up in pairs to work with shelter dogs named Rockwell, Kingman, Little Brother, Gracie, Crow and Diamond. The teens pulled dog treats out of apron pockets and pressed a device that made a loud click when each dog obeyed the teens’ commands. The dogs appeared willing to please, and the teens broke into smiles when they got the dog to sit or lay down.
The students are here to train the dogs with skills that may help them find an adopted home. But the obedience training is also meant to serve a much deeper purpose: to help the teenagers learn to cope with the trauma they’ve experienced living in one of the most violent parts of the Los Angeles area and prevent that trauma from hindering their learning.
"[The students are] able to come and work with their partner and their dog in a very non-judgmental environment and they’re able to kind of relax," said Bunche teacher (and part-time dog trainer) Rachel Worthington. "It just helps remove all the other chaos that’s going on. When they’re here and working with their dog and they get to see the progress their dog is making, it really makes them feel successful."
Worthington partnered with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA) to bring this afterschool program, called Teaching Love and Compassion, to Bunche in 2010. And this year, for the first time, spcaLA partnered with the school to expand the program into the school day through a new one-semester elective class at Bunche called “Humane Education.”
These kinds of grassroots efforts in Compton to help students learn social and emotional skills are springing up in the absence of what advocates say are badly-needed, much more widespread changes to school curriculum to help counterbalance the effects of trauma on learning.
The links between trauma and animal cruelty
Last year, public interest lawyers sued Compton Unified School District on behalf of students there, arguing that the district is not doing enough to counteract complex trauma among students. Unaddressed, they said, the trauma is preventing students from receiving a quality education.
The lawsuit cites studies that demonstrate that the "alarms" that trauma triggers in the body induces a fight or flight reaction that floods the body with adrenaline, expecting other threats. The alarm could also cause a freeze and surrender reaction that leads the body to tune out and disconnect. Both types of reactions undermine the memorization, comprehension and organizational skills necessary for effective learning.
Research shows that multiple three or more traumatic experiences lead some children to repeat a grade, miss school, have behavioral problems and be suspended — all of which in turn contribute to higher dropout rates.
In Compton, where the poverty rate is twice the national average and the murder rate is five times the national average, lawyers argue that trauma has caused an educational crisis.
At Bunche, Worthington said, those statistics mean that the pre-teens and teenagers at the school have seen "a lot of gang-related traumas, death of family members, shootings, loss of family members from shootings, a lot of divorce, a lot of abuse.”
Worthington reached out to spcaLA to start the program at Bunche after a sad incident prompted her and other teachers to ask what they could do to counter students’ aggressive behavior that they believed was rooted in the violence they’ve witnessed at home and in their neighborhoods.
A sick, stray dog had wandered onto the campus, Worthington said, so she put out a blanket outside her class for the dog to lay on. Students then told her that a group of kids had been kicking the dog and when she went outside the dog was dead.
spcaLA's after-school program was founded two decades ago, initially as an attempt to stop that kind of cruelty to animals, but organizers say they noticed benefits for the students too.
Many of the teens said they enrolled because they like dogs.
“It’s really sad for me to see dogs in the shelter, so I just want to see them adopted,” said seventh-grader Adriana Ruiz as she rewarded the dog Gracie with a treat for sitting when commanded to do so.
But Ruiz also said that she’s working on raising two C grades, a task that she said is complicated by her surroundings.
“Gangs… don’t help me concentrate on my work because I’m always thinking about the stuff that happens to people, drive-bys, a lot of killing, that type of stuff, it puts me down,” she said.
Both sides in the trauma lawsuit confirmed that talks toward a settlement are moving forward.
If the plaintiffs against the Compton school district prevail, the district could be required to provide much more mental health counseling, better training on “trauma-informed learning” for staff and an overhaul to discipline policies.
This year the school district provided two kinds of trauma training for staff. Some teachers and staff took online workshops to identify trauma. Others attended in-person assemblies led by trauma experts.
"All it was is telling us what we already knew," said Armando Castro, a social studies teacher at Chavez Continuation School. "Kids around here have challenges in their life, there’s a lot of violence in the community. This is stuff we already knew."
School officials stand by their efforts, while suggesting that they're not equipped to provide more.
"It’s really unfair for the school district to be challenged with providing these services without any financial support,” said Satra Zurita, the president of the Compton Unified school board. “If we could get financial support we’d provide a clinic on every campus."
She said the school district is working on bringing psychology students into the school district to help as counselors.
In the meantime, the new class at Bunche shows what more trauma-informed instruction might look like in practice.
Denisse Bernal of spcaLA teaches the class, even though during the school day the pets remain at the shelter. On a recent day, Bernal led two dozen students on a daily writing exercise designed to get students to write down their emotions and think about effective communication.
The writing prompt on the dry erase board aimed to lead students to question whether what they heard a person say is what the person intended to communicate.
And after the writing exercise, Bernal led the class in a group exercise about conflict resolution.
“Did the fight start when the person punched the other person or did it start before that?” she asked the entire class. “It all started before, right?” She then put the students in groups of five and had them come up with words to describe what escalates conflict. The students came up with “talking trash,” “gossiping” and “lying.”
Students said they like how the class opens them up to words, emotions and communication.
“I think it does help me because I’ve also taught my smaller sister some of these words,” said eighth grader Maya Garcia.
She said she tells her 9-year-old sister all about the class “and how she can treat dogs better and to use compassion, or empathy, or sympathy towards people and animals.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled spcaLA, KPCC regrets the error.