ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In New Orleans, children show signs of PTSD at three times the national rate. Over the past two years, schools there have been trying to better support those children. Reporter Mallory Falk recently spent a couple of months at one New Orleans school, and she met a student working through her own trauma.
MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: That student is Sherlae. She is 14 years old. She goes to Crocker College Prep, but right now, she's showing me her bedroom.
SHERLAE: OK, so how I would get set up to write my poem is I would open my drawer and get one of my pencils or just get this, one of my Sharpies out and...
FALK: Sherlae has always loved to write, but recently, she started keeping journals - lots of them - something she learned at school that could help her deal with her emotions. Sherlae - we're using her middle name to protect her privacy - digs through a desk drawer stuffed with paper.
SHERLAE: I save all my writing in here, even all my school work. Now, I know now I have to save all my schoolwork in here. And - because I don't want my mom to throw it away.
FALK: Late last fall, Sherlae says her mom stormed into her room, grabbed all her schoolwork and writing and threw it in a dumpster down the street. Sherlae says sometimes her mom is great.
SHERLAE: And she takes me to go swimming. And we just go ride bikes and have a sunshiny day. And it's like - it'll be fun. It'll be happy. It'll be joyful, happy.
FALK: But there are times when she goes off her medication or drinks too much.
SHERLAE: She just turns into a different person. It's like, do I even know you anymore?
FALK: Sherlae's grandmother, Marie - whose middle name we're also using and who has custody of her granddaughter - has been watching the girls since she was 3. They're close.
MARIE: What'd I tell you to tell people who try to hurt your feelings? What'd I tell you to tell them?
SHERLAE: They need Jesus.
FALK: A few years ago, Marie says, Sherlae and her mom were evicted, and her mom began cycling in and out of jail. Sherlae's grades plummeted. We did try to speak with her mom for this story, but she declined. Some kids get disruptive when they're upset, start fights, storm out of class. But Sherlae completely shuts down.
SHERLAE: When you should worry about me is like when I'm not paying much attention in class, like when I'm laying my head down and going to sleep or when I'm just out of it and I'm not focusing. I'm just staring off into space and I'm just sitting back, not really focusing on anything.
FALK: Her grandmother asked the school to help. Rochelle Gauthier is one of two full-time social workers at Crocker. She says staff here have learned to recognize the many ways trauma shows up in the classroom. So instead of punishing students who, say, put their heads down on their desks...
ROCHELLE GAUTHIER: We've tried to build capacity in our teachers to understand that, like, it may be something else going on.
FALK: Gauthier is the woman who first encouraged Sherlae to start journaling. She set up regular appointments with the girl to talk and come up with coping mechanisms, like writing poetry. Gauthier says because Sherlae was so quiet. Other schools might have overlooked her.
GAUTHIER: You know, really sadly, like, kids who struggle with serious depression who fly under the radar, like, can end up, you know, in the hospital for harming themselves or, you know, potentially dead as well.
FALK: That's something Sherlae says she's thought about.
SHERLAE: My depression about my mom got to the point where one time I said I wanted to hurt myself. She said she didn’t want me around. Like, she was saying that she didn’t want me in the world anymore, stuff like that.
FALK: Gauthier made her sign a contract promising she wouldn't harm herself and got her into more intensive counseling. Sherlae is still dealing with trauma, but she says she's better able to manage her stress and focus in class. And as for those failing grades, last spring she reached into her sparkly purple backpack and surprised her grandma with a great report card.
SHERLAE: And she was like, who is this for? This is probably for somebody else 'cause I see a different name on it. But it was my name and everything, so it was like...
MARIE: I was like, this belongs to somebody else or you - girl, you brought home somebody else's report card (laughter). Look, I'm like, girl, go ahead on, give her a hug and stuff. I said, keep up the good work.
FALK: Sherlae wants to keep up the good work, but she'll be in high school soon, and she wonders if she'll find a place with all the supports she has at Crocker. For NPR News, I'm Mallory Falk in New Orleans.
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