With ‘Paper Tigers’ educators, health professionals take another look at discipline

9 mins read
Keith Plouffe of Care and Comfort, Doug Saunders of Franklin County Children's Task Force and Laurel Samson of Department of Health and Human Services, along with Superintendent Thomas Ward lead a panel discussion of Paper Tigers.
Keith Plouffe of Care and Comfort, Doug Saunders of Franklin County Children’s Task Force and Laurel Samson of Department of Health and Human Services, along with Superintendent Thomas Ward lead a panel discussion of Paper Tigers.

FARMINGTON – Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, are described as the negative life events that children are exposed to which often cause traumatic lifelong side effects.

The ACE questionnaire was put together by the Kaiser Permanente Health Clinic in San Diego and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1995 to study the effects that those traumatic events can sometimes lead to in a person’s life. The questionnaire is a list of ten seemingly simple questions, things like ‘did a parent or other adult ever push, grab, slap or throw something at you?’ and ‘did you often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special?’. Based on the yes or no answer given to each question, test takers tally up their points (one for each ‘yes’) to determine their ACE score.

The results of the study were shocking. Adults that had an ACE score of 4 were seven times more likely to be alcoholics and twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer. People who scored 6 or higher were thirty times more likely to have attempted suicide. Out of the students who took the ACE test and scored 4 or higher, more than half had learning and behavioral problems in school.

This is exactly where principal Jim Sporleder began when sitting down to rethink the structure of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Wash. Sporleder, along with a team of staff and film makers, documented their efforts to acknowledge and accept the ‘toxic stress’ that ACEs inevitably lead to for their student body.

The end result received national recognition and has started a movement. Paper Tigers profiles the lives of five different students at Lincoln and the work of the school staff to support them in success. Within the specific stories of the students, audience members can easily imagine any one of the rough-around-the-edges kids they’ve seen hanging out downtown or in the park n’ ride- “The kids that get labeled. Get rid of em’. They’re nothing but trouble,” Sporleder says in the opening of the film. Paper Tigers hooks you in with students like Eternity, who has cerebral palsy and struggled with being bullied before coming to Lincoln. And Steven, who, in the first ten minutes of the film is in trouble for having a lighter at school and telling Sporleder to “f*** off.”

“In the past that would have been a five day suspension for swearing,” Sporleder explains,”but I thought, where is that going to get us? He’s going to come back in five days and it will be the same thing. Instead I called up his dad and told him to be back at school tomorrow. Turns out his mom had run off the day before with no explanation. It wasn’t about the lighter at all.”

As the movie develops, this is the vein that ties it all together- it’s not about the lighter at all. When kids grow up in homes where their brains are constantly threatened, or in other words, kids who have ACEs, their bodies learn to always be on edge. They develop a constant fight or flight mode to carry them through their days.

“They don’t know the difference between a real tiger or a paper tiger,” Lincoln science teacher Erik Gordon says.

One way to understand ACEs in relation to student behavior is to imagine an iceberg. The part of the iceberg that breaks the surface- the “f*** you”, the lighter, the defiance … or even the less negative–the student who needs constant praise, the student who is attached at your hip–these are just the obvious behaviors that anyone who walks into a classroom could see. They are the tip of the iceberg that is easy to react to. The 90 percent below water is the lifelong chaos–the ACEs that drive the behavior. This is the part that not just anyone who walks into a classroom can see. It is the part that relies heavily on a positive relationship with the student to understand and work with.

“The behaviors we see are symptoms of something bigger. They are not the moral failing of a student,” Superintendent Thomas Ward said during a recent showing of Paper Tigers at Mt. Blue High School. “We need to shift from punishment and blame to a deeper understanding and healing.”

A key piece of Lincoln High School’s success was not only the work of teachers and administrators working directly with the students, but also of the community’s desire to help change the way their youths were being treated. After the shift of thinking and working with these students began, Lincoln saw a 90 percent decrease in suspensions, a 75 percent decrease in fights and a five-fold increase in graduation rates. The school established an on campus health clinic so that students with no car, no involved parents and no money for a bus pass could actually make it to their appointments. Teachers are filmed playing music with kids, taking students on college tours, and consistently letting their students know how much they care for them.

“Their kindness made it so much easier to take their advice,” one student said.

Maine ranks in the top 15 in the nation for graduation rates, with 86 percent of its students earning high school diplomas on time. Within the state, Franklin County comes in at number three for highest number of graduating students.

However, Franklin County is also one of three counties in Maine with the highest number of child abuse cases, 30 percent of whom will grow up to abuse their own children.

In a panel discussion after the movie, Doug Saunders of Franklin County Children’s Task Force said that “we can’t go back and change what happened for these kids. But, we can build resilience and work towards changing the cycle.”

He also pointed out that we live in a truly resource-rich community, with organizations and committees such as the Task Force, Care and Comfort, Safe Schools and the Franklin Resource Collaborative who working hard to battle these statistics— then of course there are our schools.

“The schools are the one place that doesn’t go away for these kids,” Keith Plouffe of Care and Comfort said after the film.

Teachers, administrators, custodians, cafeteria staff, bus drivers are the people who are given the opportunity every day to work towards changing the scary statistics of our students who struggle with ACEs. The more they can understand the iceberg and build positive relationships with these kids, the more they are going to feel proud, happy, loved and ultimately successful.

As one teacher at Lincoln High School said: “My first goal is to make eye contact and we build up from there.”

For information about Donna Beegle’s upcoming presentation on working with students living in poverty click here.

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  1. I had the great opportunity to see this film and the impact from a personal point of view, has been very impressive. We have so many broken families in our area and many of our children have no one to look up to or trust at home. No one to make them feel safe or loved.
    I say, Be That One! Be the one person a troubled child can trust. Be the one to try to make it better. Be the one to listen, not just hear what they are saying. Be the one to read between the lines of the disruptive behavior and tell them they are still loved. Be the one they can call friend. Perhaps we can make a positive change in society one child at a time!

  2. I would love to see the students whom other students admire, because of personal attitudes, looks, knowledge , or being looked up to as ” popular” , mentor, the less fortunate ones and be sincere with them in persuading them into making better decisions. Not being popular in school causes a lot of kids to do drugs, alcohol and other bad things. Life today is so much different that it was when I was in that same world.

  3. The school in this story is an “alternative” high school for students in Walla Walla, Washington who have not been successful at Walla Walla High School.


    “…Lincoln High School, an “alternative” school attended by students who couldn’t make it at Walla Walla High School..”

    That community decided that in order to educate all of its students, it needed to make the financial investment in an alternative structure with support services and sufficient staff for students who have experienced a traumatic childhood.

    What Lincoln does is terrific, but it would be comparing apples and oranges not to acknowledge that many high schools there, and here in Maine, deal with all students. And, those schools that do take all students may not always have the resources to do what Lincoln does, and may have to deal more firmly with discipline for the good of all students.

    Perhaps an alternative high school might be something we should look at in our area. There have been very successful ones in our state.


  4. What was this article trying to convey by saying Lincoln High had “a five-fold increase in graduation rates”?

    The actual wording implies that the previous graduation rate at Lincoln was 20% or less — because otherwise it couldn’t increase to five times as much. (How would more than 100% of the students graduate?) But if the previous rate was 20% or less, this would be appallingly bad and it would be hard to see how this one intervention, however good an idea, could do so much for it.

    Did someone perhaps mean to say that the rate of students dropping out or failing to graduate was cut to one-fifth of its previous level? That is mathematically a completely different statement, as should be clear to anyone who has absorbed pre-high-school math.

    Or was the intended meaning something completely different?

  5. Very well said B. J. Tracy!! This sounds like a program every school should have, starting with elementary.

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