Unifying Systems with Science: Trauma Trainings in Schools

by Marrin Scalone, LUV Editor

Darlene Keener’s LUV Story 

In 2019, Darlene Keener found herself within the same profound moment that many experience during their introduction to trauma science. When learning about the effects of adversity across our lifespan, she instantly recognized the undercurrents and patterns woven throughout her entire career in education. By understanding traumatic exposure and early childhood experiences, she was finally equipped with the language to tell the whole story- to reveal the why behind certain challenging behaviors and academic outcomes. 

Darlene’s professional and personal transformation took place while attending the Attachment and Trauma Network’s Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools Conference. At the time, she served as the Special Education Behavioral Specialist for Caroline County Public Schools and was selected to receive a funding package. She entered the space excited yet unaware of the ripple effects the 3-day trip would have on the rest of her life.

            I asked Darlene more about her aha moment during this conference, when she took her first deep dive into the science of trauma, stress, and adversity: 

The data behind it all – that was my moment,” she told me. “You knew the data was true because you lived it every day. I knew intuitively this was going on in our classrooms, but I couldn’t speak to it in a professional way. It allowed me to advocate for the changes I already knew I needed.”

            The timing for Darlene’s revitalization at this conference couldn’t have been more crucial, considering the global challenge we all faced in the following year—an experience like none other. The unprecedented effects of the coronavirus pandemic ripped through our public school systems in early 2020, sending aftershocks of need through classrooms that can be felt today. Facing this ultimate demand for her newfound trauma-informed lens, Darlene was proactive and adamant for quick, efficient reform:

“I knew things would be really rough when we all came back; how could they not be? I asked myself, ‘how can we prepare divisional staff for this when the kids return?”’ 

Darlene spearheaded a training to do just that: a three-step training plan would seek to give CCPS staff the same mindset shift she experienced at the CTTS conference. She devised the training into three sessions: An introduction to trauma and ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), real-world examples, and school-wide cultural implementation.

Like many of us, Darlene found the hidden blessing of virtual learning to serve her need for high capacity and flexible training hours. The live sessions were videotaped and required to be viewed by every school staff member, each session with its own exit ticket. Knowing the virtual videos were only supplemental to the connection of community, Darlene facilitated a fourth training in person once staff returned to school. 

“[During the in person meet-up], We had participants put a rock in their writing hand, and try to write with their non-dominant hand,” Darlene explained. 

“We made them carry these rocks around, some were heavier than others. These rocks represented the trauma that kids were carrying with them coming into our schools. I think that activity made it become real to them.” 

After, each participant received their trauma-informed certificate, and a banner to hang proudly in their schools. 

“What do you think made this training different than others you all may have had in the past?” I asked. 

“We had nuggets of professional development here and there, guest speakers, but there was no unifying training. No one was speaking in a common voice. That was our silver lining from covid. It offered that chance to take a deep breath.” 

Since this triumph, Darlene has moved into the new position of Administrator of Caroline County’ Public School’s alternative education school. She named the program Lotus Academy, as it represents the ability to rise, like the flower, from the darkness of adversity and radiate resilience into the world. In only its third year, this program has received statewide recognition for its unique approach to alternative learning.  The school incorporates social-emotional learning throughout every aspect of the day and places a strong emphasis on family and community engagement. 

“Our reset rooms are crucial. They’re places to go when students need to self-regulate, then when they’re reach, they can rejoin the classroom.” 

Given the opportunity to bring one element of Lotus Academy into the traditional public-school setting, Darlene would choose to equip each school with reset rooms. 

We can see it coming,” she explained. “We know when [the kids] need a break. And that’s when we end up with consequences, when we have to insert ourselves during a crisis cycle. I feel that’s unfair. I’d hope for a space for students to come down from dysregulation, then we go over to the beginning and talk about what happened. Too often, teachers and/or administrators are intervening, usually through discipline, while the student is still in an elevated state. This is what leads to more OSS (out of school suspension) and absenteeism.” 

Since her transformative experiences at the CTSS conference in 2019, Darlene’s journey has come full circle. Built upon her efforts to build safety and facilitate county-wide healing during the pandemic, to her invaluable leadership at Lotus Academy, Darlene was selected as a speaker for the 2024 Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools Conference. 

Darlene’s story is a true testament to the power of science-based education in adverse childhood experiences, trauma, and toxic stress. She is a LUV leader in her community, stepping forward to promote trauma-informed care across her community, and Virginia beams with pride to have her represent our state at next year’s upcoming convening.

Perhaps someone like 2019 Darlene, who stepped into her first trauma presentation, will be in her audience, ready to carry on the momentum toward healing communities. 

To contact Darlene Keener, please reach out via email: dkeener@ccps.us

To learn more about the Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools Conference, visit https://www.attachmenttraumanetwork.org/conference/ . 

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s Creating, Supporting, and Sustaining Trauma-Informed Schools Framework: https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/creating_supporting_sustaining_trauma_informed_schools_a_systems_framework.pdf