Dale spent hours with his parents working on his fourth-grade science fair project, an enormous system of strings and a balloon-powered rocket that took lots of patience and persistence to get right.
“Over spring break, I set it up about 50 times,” Dale said back in April 2017, just minutes after winning one of the few prizes at the Earl Boyles Elementary science fair.
It wasn’t that his project wasn’t working.
“Well, it worked, but it didn’t work as good.”
That was a high point for Dale’s connection to school and to his mother, who helped with the prize-winning work. Both would fall apart the following fall when his life would be shaken by trauma.
Oregon educators say the effects of trauma are showing up increasingly in schools through disruptive behavior and other problems. That includes students in the Class Of 2025 project — a group of 27 children OPB is following from kindergarten through high school, as Oregon leaders aim for all students to finish high school starting with that cohort.
Children who’ve been through trauma are more than twice as likely to drop out before finishing high school.
Dale’s life started to change that following summer when his family moved from Southeast Portland to the mid-Willamette Valley.
One night in October 2017, Dale woke to a violent fight between his parents. The events of that night and its aftermath turned a confident, though private, youngster into an impatient, combative adolescent.
Dale’s description of his parents’ fight was related slowly, matter-of-fact — a series of events he’d narrate many times to school counselors and child welfare workers over the last year.
“Well, my mom was drinking and my mom and my stepdad got in a fight at like two o’clock in the morning,” Dale said “My sister didn’t wake up, surprisingly. [They were] banging each other against the walls and slamming doors.”
Dale, 10 at the time, says he got in the middle of the fight in an attempt to break it up. He says his mother bit him on the shoulder and bit his stepfather on the ankle.
The stepfather called Dale’s grandmother, who confirms Dale’s account of the incident (in Lincoln City) and then he called the local police. The next morning, officials with Oregon’s Department of Human Services showed up, starting what Dale considered a “horrible” intrusion over the following months.
“Just having them demand my life, telling what I can and can’t do,” Dale said. “Taking my privileges away, like hunting or whatever.”
Dale’s mother didn’t respond to interview requests.
Dale has been living with his grandmother, Carolyn Smith, since last December. Smith said she sympathizes with Dale’s objections to the state restrictions.
“The whole experience felt like he was the one being punished when he wasn’t the one who did things,” Smith said.
Smith brought Dale to Taft Elementary in Lincoln City to re-start fifth grade. It didn’t go well.
“Very aggressive — very closed off,” was how principal Becca Bostwick described Dale that year.
“He would rarely communicate with us,” she said. “I maybe saw him smile two or three times. He was in crisis mode and very much shut down.”
Researchers say that trauma can affect kids’ behavior, and even the physiology of kids’ brains, making it harder to follow directions and learn.
A big key to minimizing the damage from trauma is to connect kids with trusted adults, even though the trauma they’ve experienced often involved adults letting them down.
As Dale re-entered fifth grade a year ago, he kept school staff at a distance. He’d swear and get in fights. He shifted to one-on-one tutoring with retired teacher Debra Gaffney at a public library in Lincoln City.
“We usually try to meet Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and we try to go for two hours each day,” Gaffney said, emphasizing that she felt her job was to work with Dale on terms he could accept.
“Some days that doesn’t work,” she said. “If Dale says ‘I’m done,’ then it’s like ‘we’re done.’ That’s OK.”
Giving Dale some control helped. As other kids were finishing fifth grade last June, Dale and Gaffney finished, too.
Over the summer, Dale’s grandmother worked to get custody of Dale and his sister. Dale wanted DHS out of his life, too. As school started in September, Smith, Dale and principal Bostwick met again to see if Taft Elementary would be a fit for him this time.
Bostwick recalled a turning point when she pitched school as a way to get what he wanted.
“I just looked at him, and said ‘Dale, you are in control of the situation — you have this choice, you get to choose what happens next,’” Bostwick said. “We were a little hesitant for him to come back. He came back.
“Completely different child.”
School is different, too. Dale now receives the kind of accommodations that researchers say can help kids dealing with trauma.
He can work in the school office rather than attend certain classes, like physical education, lunch and the larger band classes. He’s reluctant to explain why he doesn’t want to attend those, but the adults in his life suspect the bigger groups make him anxious.
When Dale checked in with principal Bostwick on one afternoon in November, it was part work, part bonding time. Bostwick needled Dale about the teachers’ new tradition of dancing in the mornings outside the school’s front door.
“By the end of the year, that is my goal, I will know I have succeeded in life when Dale dances with us,” Bostwick joked.
“No, I will not join,” Dale deadpanned back. “No, sorry, never.”
“Mark my words, staff,” Bostwick said to the rest of the office with a smile.
“No, I am not marking your words,” Dale responded. He was trying to hide a grin.
It’s not perfect. Dale spends most of his day in Jessica Bailey’s sixth-grade class. Even though he chooses not to attend several of the courses outside of that room, he said he’d like more variety.
And on Halloween, Dale got in a fight in Bailey’s class. Both boys involved received suspensions.
“Well, when the kids saw him and the other student fighting, some of them were scared,” Bailey said in a recent interview, with Dale sitting next to her.
But she tied the fight to the bigger goal of the school — to support all kids whatever their problems: “We’re a school family, and I tell them when they see something like that — kids acting out, or needing accommodations — I tell them ‘Each kid gets what he or she needs.’”
Dale is slowly fitting in. He’s got a girlfriend he sits next to on his long school bus rides. He agrees it’s a valuable time to have together, if not exactly private.
“Eavesdroppers, I tell you what,” Dale said, shaking his head.
The Lincoln County school district is part of a growing effort to train teachers to support the social and emotional needs of students. Leading lawmakers see the need and say they intend to invest in it.
Principal Bostwick said her work with Dale is part training, part experience and part heart.
“We’re people who are not going to let him fail,” she said.
This is Part 2 on the Class of 2025 and childhood trauma in the classroom. Read Ethan’s story here.