Shifting the culture at WNY’s first trauma-informed school district

The School of Social Work's Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care culminates 6-year partnership with Ken-Ton Schools

Ken-Ton social workers and counselors discuss ITTIC's Trauma-Informed Organizational Change Manual with the ITTIC team.

From left, Samantha Koury, Susan Sperrazza, Susan Green and Bettymarie Sullivan discuss ITTIC's Trauma-Informed Organizational Change Manual at Hoover Elementary School. Photos: Onion Studio.

By Matthew Biddle

Published August 16, 2023

“Being trauma-informed means interacting with everybody in a way that shows we are aware that trauma is likely to be in the room, and we don't want to make it worse. ”
Samantha Koury, Co-Director, Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care
University at Buffalo School of Social Work

From the moment you set foot in one of the Kenmore-Tonawanda School District’s nine schools, you know you are in a trauma-informed district.

At Edison Elementary School, a rotating welcome screen informs parents that trauma-informed care is part of the school’s mission. At Hoover Elementary, the week kicks off with “Mindful Monday” exercises on the morning announcements. And, across the district, job seekers are asked about trauma-informed practices during interviews.

Trauma-informed educational practices are now infused into every aspect of Ken-Ton’s operations — thanks to a multi-year partnership between the district and the University at Buffalo School of Social Work’s Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care (ITTIC). Since 2018, the ITTIC team has worked with leaders and educators across the district to provide training and develop an action plan to make Ken-Ton the first trauma-informed school district in Western New York.

“ITTIC has helped cause change in our district that has been very powerful and impactful,” says Michael J. Huff, principal at Hoover Elementary. “They helped us build a foundation and create culture change, and the engagement level for this initiative has been the highest I’ve seen in my 21 years in the district.”

The Ken-Ton partnership has also served as a model for ITTIC’s work to facilitate trauma-informed culture and climate change in other districts, including Frontier, Lockport, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda, West Seneca and Williamsville.

“Ken-Ton was a pioneer in Western New York for being the first district to commit to being trauma-informed,” says Susan A. Green, clinical professor in the UB School of Social Work and co-director of ITTIC. “They’ve been a true partner with us, and we’ve been able to share lessons learned with other school districts.”

Bettymarie Sullivan, Samatha Koury, Susan Green and Susan Sperrazza.

Susan Green (standing) says, “When individuals have that awareness [of trauma], it positions them to use universal precautions, or to consider how someone could be triggered or retraumatized by your environment, procedures or the way you do business."

Using universal precautions

To implement trauma-informed educational practices, Green says that everyone within the school system — from the educators and support staff to the administrators and school board — must first understand that trauma is always in the room as individuals go about their daily activities.

“When individuals have that awareness, it positions them to use universal precautions, or to consider how someone could be triggered or retraumatized by your environment, procedures or the way you do business,” Green says.

For example, Green recommends avoiding the word “should,” which can induce feelings of blame or shame. “Brain breaks” are important to help children rest and refocus between activities, and posting an agenda helps students know what to expect. When teachers greet students by name and check in with them, it helps them to feel safe and share their emotions.

“Restorative questions, naming feelings, doing brain breaks, mindful minutes — it's all trauma-informed because it really allows our kids to shift from ‘survival brain’ to ‘learning brain,’” says Dina Ferraraccio, director of school culture at Ken-Ton.

A critical piece of Ken-Ton’s work has been supporting faculty and staff and helping them recognize their own trauma and triggers. In other words, “taking care of the grown-ups so they can take care of the kids,” as school counselor Bettymarie Sullivan, MSW ’02, says. At Hoover, Sullivan has led sessions on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) during staff meetings, taught yoga before school hours and offered other tools for self-care.

“We understand that adults have trauma too and we’re not robots,” Ferraraccio says. “Our supervisors and principals are exhibiting this trauma-informed approach with their staff and seeing that it’s a trickle-down. If teachers feel supported, they can better support our kids.”

Championing change

The partnership between ITTIC and Ken-Ton kicked off in January 2018 and wrapped up this June. It was initially made possible by the district's grant from the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation, which funds initiatives in mental health and other areas.

To start, ITTIC provided “Trauma 101” training to all Ken-Ton faculty, staff and administrators, including leaders at the district level, to increase their understanding of trauma and how it can affect individuals.

“Being trauma-informed means interacting with everybody in a way that shows we are aware that trauma is likely to be in the room, and we don't want to make it worse,” says Samantha Koury, co-director of ITTIC. “It’s about intentionally using the values and principles of physical and emotional safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment, with an integration of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, with everybody you interact with.”

From there, each school formed a Champion Team to lead culture change within their building and develop strategies to implement concrete actions within classrooms and operations. Along the way, Koury and Lisa Cox, associate director at ITTIC, consulted regularly with the teams to provide guidance, monitor progress and offer tools to sustain the culture shift.

At Hoover, for example, Sullivan and social worker Susan Sperrazza, MSW ’04, BA ’02, have integrated restorative practices into the school, regularly facilitating restorative circles in classrooms. At other schools, Champion Teams took on projects around staff wellness, reviewed the code of conduct and messaging, and evaluated the physical environment through a trauma-informed lens.

“People are seeing the impact of this work,” Sperrazza says. “Every faculty meeting this year has included a circle, so we can model it for teachers and they can understand that if they’re consistent with them, they will see results.”

Last year, Ken-Ton rebranded the Champion Teams as Social-Emotional Learning Implementation Teams, a move that increased staff participation and reinvigorated the initiative. Now, as their ITTIC partnership wraps up, Ken-Ton leaders say they’re well-positioned to sustain this culture shift using trauma-informed care as the umbrella under which all of their work continues, including social-emotional learning through classroom applications, restorative practices and other methods.

“I don’t think this all could have happened without bringing ITTIC on, but I do believe we’re in a very good place to build on this momentum,” Ferraraccio says.

Media Contact Information

Matthew Biddle
Director of Communications and Marketing
School of Social Work
Tel: 716-645-1226