Using a trauma-informed approach to put the brakes on the school-to-prison pipeline : a single case study of a juvenile justice alternative education program’s transformation using the Trust-Based Relational Intervention®.


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The number of students affected by trauma and ACEs are expected to rise following the COVID-19 pandemic, putting more youth at risk for social, emotional, and behavioral issues in school. A lack of educator awareness of or training on the effects of trauma on student behavior can cause educators to expel students to more punitive JJAEPs where they risk retraumatization. Expulsions put youth in direct contact with the juvenile justice system, contributing to the School-to-Prison Pipeline. That fewer Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs (JJAEPs) offer a trauma-informed approach (TIA) instead of a traditional school or more punitive model is cause for concern.

The purpose of this single, qualitative case study was to explore how one Texas JJAEP’s leaders described and how frontline staff perceived the transformation from a military model to a TIA using the Trust-Based Relational Intervention®️. The participants included the two organizational leaders and four frontline staff who were part of the organization before and after the transition. Guided by the Missouri Model: A Developmental Framework for Trauma-Informed Approaches (Missouri Department of Mental Health and Partners, 2014), I assessed how the organization progressed through the continuum of four stages: trauma aware, trauma sensitive, trauma responsive, and trauma informed. The framework served as an organizer that informed the research questions, data collection, and analysis. I collected data via document analysis, classroom observations, and semi-structured interviews.

Five key findings emerged from this case study that have implications for legislators and policymakers, juvenile justice leaders, school district leaders, and researchers. This study’s findings highlighted the extensive planning and committed implementation required from organizational leadership yet found that roadblocks and setbacks were inevitable. The voices from frontline staff contributed to the findings that implementing a TIA requires balance between youth discipline and accountability, while understanding youth’s needs and building relationships. The findings cautioned that transforming to a TIA takes a toll on the staff who work with trauma-affected youth, thus leaders must help staff alleviate stress and promote self-care.