For Students Living In Harmony House Shelter, Trauma Casts Long Shadow Over Learning

Mar 29, 2019

Many children have escaped the trauma of domestic violence and are living with a parent in the Harmony House shelter in east Springfield. Harmony House serves anywhere between 30 and 50 children at any given time. 

And that trauma can impact a child’s education.

Tony LaBellarte is the Children’s Case Manager at Harmony House. 

“Any time anybody has stress, they have to find an outlet for it. That’s the same thing that kids do.  Especially if there’s violence in the home, if there’s a transition happening in the home, if they’re carrying that stress with them to school then they’re finding an outlet.  Maybe behavioral issues with other students, [or] maybe directly with a teacher.  Isolation and then just not saying anything and kind of going reclusive,” says LaBellarte.

LaBellarte connects with Springfield Public Schools and surrounding school districts in nearby Ozark, Nixa and Republic to work out the kinks in this time of transition.  This starts with getting the kids to and from school.

“Setting up transportation is one of the biggest elements to getting kids where they need to be academically--and really just stable while they’re here in our program,” says LaBellarte.

School buses come here on special routes arranged by the school and the shelter.  Sometimes, the school has to arrange for a taxi service.

This is the result of federal law, specifically the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1997, which was created to ensure educational enrollment and stability for homeless students.

And riding the school bus to and from a shelter can be embarrassing. LaBellarte says that bus drivers know that, and they try to be sensitive and respectful of that.

“What we’ve found is if they can pick our kids up first, before they go on their bus route.” LaBellarte says.

Dropping kids off after school or extracurricular activities an be more difficult.

LaBellarte said some bus drivers have dropped kids off just down the street to save them from the potential embarrassment of getting off the bus at a shelter.

Another educational challenge when a kid is staying in a shelter is attendance.

LaBellarte says one kid came to the shelter struggling with low grades and emotional distress.

He was connected with resources through the shelter that helped him turn a corner, like tutoring and a counselor.

“He had all of these things set up and he ended up leaving our program with A’s and B’s.  I think overall just had a better sense of self and a better sense of identity, because of this new value that was added and created during this transitional process, and receiving the services that he needed,” LaBellarte says.

Meanwhile, in another part of the shelter known as “The Boutique,”  board member Kim Horton is volunteering her time to organize clothes and supplies. Kids are expected to go to school in the days after their parent leaves an abusive situation, which is often a dramatic escape.

“They arrive at the shelter usually with nothing at all.  And so when they arrive we do the best we can to accommodate everything that they need. They receive a lot of different free clothing—the bottoms, the tops, shoes, things that they need [like] school supplies and back packs,” Horton says.

The National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence found that over 60% of children experienced some type of trauma, crime, or abuse in the prior year.

Some exhibit symptoms of PTSD, which can also affect a child’s ability to learn.

The effects of trauma can prevent kids from paying attention in class, working with others, studying or focusing during tests.

Earlier this year, Springfield Public Schools announced it will work with Burrell Behavioral Health to expand mental health services inside several schools.

Burrell is beginning these services within the Hillcrest High School attendance boundaries, which includes about 4,000 students.

For KSMU’s Sense of Community Series, I’m Theresa Bettmann.

Jennifer Moore contributed to the creation of this Sense of Community Piece.