MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we're going to talk about education. In a few minutes, we'll be speaking with the outgoing head of a school district in Washington, D.C. But first, in the U.S., somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of children are exposed to domestic violence each year. Many of these kids are more likely to have behavioral issues and get into trouble in school, yet education systems, especially elementary schools, are often woefully unprepared to help these children. As part of our series on mental health in schools, Gabrielle Emanuel of the NPR Ed team reports.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Every Monday at Harvie Elementary School in Richmond, Va., things start the exact same way.
BRETT WELCH: I stand outside my office and the first thing I'm looking for are the faces when they walk in the door.
EMANUEL: Brett Welch is a counselor here. She's scanning the students faces, searching their eyes for hints of fear, pain, anger.
WELCH: Maybe there was a domestic incident at the house that weekend. And that's a reality for a lot of our kids.
EMANUEL: In the hallway is a second-grader. Today, like every Monday, this student seeks out Welch. She's already gotten in trouble with her teacher before school's even started.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I get in trouble every day.
WELCH: Well, I know. That's what we're working on, right?
EMANUEL: The 8-year-old is dealing with a hard situation at home. We're not using her name to protect her privacy. She plops down in Welch's office and hides her face. Today's topic - annoying classmates.
WELCH: We don't want them to take your...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Do I have to say it?
WELCH: Yeah, it's what we're working on.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Power.
WELCH: That's right. You keep your power.
EMANUEL: Welch understands why kids from tough homes act out.
WELCH: Because they're completely powerless at home.
EMANUEL: People like Welch can help. But around the country, there aren't enough counselors like her to go around. Not all states require elementary schools to have counselors. And even in those states where it is required, there are large caseloads. Sometimes one counselor covers multiple schools and oversees more than a thousand students. Welch is stretched so thin she's only at a Harvie Elementary a few days a week. But kids can act out at any time.
WELCH: They'll ask to go to the bathroom for the 15th time. They'll raise their voice. It can get to the level of, you know, throwing a chair or doing something. That's very rare.
EMANUEL: How does that influence the rest of the kids, the classroom?
WELCH: It completely influences the rest of the kids.
EMANUEL: Scott Carrell has the data to prove it. He's an economist at the University of California, Davis.
SCOTT CARRELL: Absolutely. So even within a school, it not only affects your achievement on standardized test scores while you're there, but those persist all the way through high school. You're less likely to go to college, and your income is reduced.
EMANUEL: Carrell looks at lots of data on restraining orders, kid's test scores and their incomes when they grow up. And he found that domestic violence has a big influence, not only on the kids in those families, but also on their classmates. And like lots of problems in education, this issue - domestic violence - affects poor schools more than better-off schools.
So what can be done to improve things? Carrell and his colleagues found one thing that really helps - parents reporting the domestic violence.
CARRELL: Things get better, not only for that family, but for all the child's classmates.
EMANUEL: Carrell says there are three things that might account for this. Number one, that violent person is now out of the kid's life. Number two, another adult has decided to be proactive. Three...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Good morning, Ms. Welch.
WELCH: Good morning. How was the weekend?
EMANUEL: School counselors, like Welch. Reporting domestic violence forces schools to pay attention, and school counselors get involved. Welch talks to students about finding safe places in their homes. She works on anger management, and she helps kids improve their emotional vocabulary. Today, Welch is teaching a lesson in Vickie Fahed's kindergarten class.
WELCH: ...Because we're all on the same, what?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Page.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Team.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Level.
WELCH: Page, team, level. You're right. All those answers are right.
EMANUEL: When Welch isn't in the classroom, Vickie Fahed sends angry or disruptive kids down the hallway to see Welch.
VICKIE FAHED: The child comes back so relaxed and so at peace.
EMANUEL: When that kid is at ease, the whole class can focus. That translates into higher test scores and better graduation rates. All this is great, but only on the days when Welch is there.
FAHED: You can tell when she's not here in this building. It's a big difference because we're like, OK, today's not - she's not here today. We have to wait till tomorrow.
EMANUEL: Brett Welch knows she can't help every child, but she says she does what she can.
WELCH: You tell them that you love them because you do and because maybe that's what they need to be able to get through whatever there is to get through at home.
EMANUEL: And if that child's home life gets better, things will get better at school for that child and all their classmates, too. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News.
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