May/June 2022

Legal Matters

Trauma: Define, Identify, and Respond

By Maryam T. Brotine

In the past year I have had the privilege of serving on the Illinois State Board of Education’s Whole Child Task Force (WCTF), created by Public Act 101-654 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. This was a time when existing systemic inequities that disproportionately impacted students and communities along the lines of race, income, language, and special needs were starkly exposed.

The legislature noted that prior to the pandemic, students faced “significant unmet physical health, mental health, and social and emotional needs” due to the cumulative effects of trauma and toxic stress, which include adverse childhood experiences, systemic racism, poverty, food and housing insecurity, and gender-based violence. As we have learned too well, these cumulative effects were exacerbated by the pandemic. To address students’ health and social-emotional needs, the WCTF was charged with “establishing an equitable, inclusive, safe, and supportive environment in all schools for every student in this State.” 

Where could we begin with such a tall order? Fortunately, the legislature identified our starting point: Create common definitions of a trauma-responsive school, a trauma-responsive district, and a trauma-responsive community. As stated in Recommendation No. 1 of the WCTF final report, “common language is crucial for mutual understanding” and “will provide clarity and support the sharing of information, best practices, and resources.”

Common definitions are especially important for school boards and school employees because training related to trauma is or soon will be required in three ways:
  1. Currently, mandated reporter training required by the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act must include training on responding to a child in a trauma-informed manner. All district employees are mandated reporters. See sample PRESS policy 5:90, Abused and Neglected Child Reporting.
  2. Section 10-22.39(b) of the School Code requires that at least once every two years, school districts train licensed personnel and administrators who work with students in grades K-12 to identify the warning signs of mental illness and suicidal behavior in youth and on appropriate intervention and referral techniques. See sample PRESS policy 7:290, Suicide and Depression Awareness and Prevention. Effective January 1, 2023, Public Act 102-638 adds trauma to the list of required training topics, and training regarding the implementation of trauma-informed practices will satisfy the trauma training requirement.
  3. Beginning in the fall of 2023, the professional development leadership training (PDLT) required for all school board members by Section 10-16a of the School Code must include training on trauma-informed practices for students and staff. See sample PRESS policy 2:120, Board Member Development.
Despite these training requirements, there are currently no statutory definitions of trauma or what it means to be trauma-informed or trauma-responsive at any level. The School Code sections noted above outline what training in trauma-informed practices may include, such as “the recognition of and care for trauma in students and staff” and “the effect of trauma on student behavior and learning.” But what happens if your district’s definition of trauma differs from the neighboring district’s definition? Or – more confusingly – what if different definitions of trauma are used within your school district? Can you imagine the miscommunication and missed opportunities that would result if school board members were trained on one definition of trauma while school personnel were trained on a different definition?

After months of research, discussion, and deliberation, the WCTF developed the following common definitions.

Trauma is defined according to three Es: Event, Experience, and Effects. Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, or emotional well-being. Collective trauma is a psychological reaction to a traumatic event shared by any group of people. This may include but is not limited to community violence; racism and discrimination; and the lack of essential supports for well-being, such as educational or economic opportunities, food, health care, housing, and community cohesion. Trauma can be experienced by anyone, though it is disproportionately experienced by members of marginalized groups. Systemic and historical oppression, such as racism, is often at the root of this inequity. Of note, symptoms may vary at different developmental stages and across different cultural groups and different communities.

Trauma-responsive learning environments are learning environments developed during an ongoing, multi-year long process that typically progresses across the following three stages:

A school or district is “trauma aware” when it:
  • Has personnel that demonstrate a foundational understanding of a broad definition of trauma that is developmentally and culturally based; includes students, personnel, and communities; and recognizes the potential effect on biological, cognitive, academic, and social-emotional functioning; and
  • Recognizes that traumatic exposure can impact behavior and learning and should be acknowledged in policies, strategies, and systems of support for students, families, and personnel.
A school or district is “trauma responsive” when it progresses from awareness to action in the areas of policy, practice, and structural changes within a multi-tiered system of support to promote safety, positive relationships, and self-regulation while underscoring the importance of personal well-being and cultural responsiveness. Such progress may:
  • Be aligned with the Illinois Quality Framework and integrated into the continuous improvement process of a school or district as evidence to support allocation of financial resources;
  • Be assessed and monitored by a multidisciplinary leadership team on an ongoing basis; and
  • Involve the engagement and capacity-building of personnel at all levels to ensure that adults in the learning environment are prepared to recognize and respond to those impacted by trauma.
A school or district is “healing centered” when it acknowledges its role and responsibility to the community, fully responds to trauma, and promotes resilience and healing through genuine, trusting, and creative relationships. Such schools or districts may:
  • Promote holistic and collaborative approaches that are grounded in culture, spirituality, civic engagement, and equity; and
  • Support agency within individuals, families, and communities while engaging people in collective action that moves from transactional to transformational.

A trauma-responsive community is a community that recognizes the trauma within it and leverages individual, family, and collective strengths along with local resources – including schools, health and social service providers, and faith and civic organizations – to remove barriers and provide safe, supportive, empowered, trustworthy, and collaborative environments that value the history, culture, and diversity of all individuals within the community. This approach identifies multi-generational impacts and contributions, dismantles inequities embedded into community systems and policies, leverages peer relationships, and involves cross-agency and cross-sector collaboration in efforts to educate and build resilience with prevention, treatment, supports, and social justice.

Whole child means using a child-centered, holistic, equitable lens across all systems that prioritize physical, mental, and social-emotional health to ensure that every child is healthy, safe, supported, challenged, engaged, and protected.

It is no accident that the first recommendation of the WCTF is for these definitions to be universally adopted across Illinois, and we can start by incorporating them into the School Code and the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act.

Afterward, there are 29 more WCTF recommendations for your consideration. The recommendations are quite extensive – impacting every individual and system that interacts with K-12 students across all settings, from the classroom to the pediatrician’s office to the courthouse. That is deliberate because, as eloquently stated by educator Alex Shevrin Venet in Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, “creating an ecosystem of equity-centered trauma-informed practices will require systems change and collaboration across disciplines.”

As a board member, you are in a prime leadership position to spearhead such systems change and collaboration and to uniquely and creatively tailor it to meet your community’s needs. How will you and your district continue working toward equitable, inclusive, safe, and supportive environments for all students in your district?
Maryam Brotine is Assistant General Counsel with the Illinois Association of School Boards. To read the Whole Child Task Force Final Report and discover further resources, visit the Journal’s resources page at