Oakland Mom Seeks to Make Schools Better for Kids Traumatized by Violence
Nicole Wiggins knows violence firsthand. When she was pregnant with her son, someone opened fire on a car she was riding in with her baby’s father. He was shot and killed.
"I got shot as well, twice," Wiggins says. "So I feel like I’m here for a reason. That’s why I think this journey I’m taking is something I’m supposed to be doing."
Wiggins is now an active parent leader in Oakland schools, trying hard to make sure both her kids go to college. In their East Oakland apartment, Wiggins sits in the living room with her teenagers, Asim Smith Jr. and Margaret Cooksey.
Asim, 16, is an avid turf dancer. "I’m looking forward to being either a construction worker or a fashion designer," he says.
"What I want to be when I grow up is I want to be an OB-GYN," says Margaret, 15. "I love babies, for one. Second of all, I would like to bring a new living being into the world."
Wiggins knows achieving those dreams might be hard for her kids. Ever since they were very small, she says, Asim and Margaret have faced a very different reality than kids from wealthy areas of Oakland.
"My kids have actually seen a dead body," says Wiggins. "One day we were coming home from school, and our street was blocked off. The kids were like, 'Oh my God, look!' Can you imagine being 8 years old and seeing a dead body on the street?"
As they've gotten older, Wiggins has worried her kids are becoming numb to death. Both teenagers have had friends or schoolmates who have suffered violent deaths.
Asim heads into his bedroom and returns with a handful of laminated photos, each dangling from a lanyard. It’s his collection: All people he has known who are now dead, most of them shot.
"One of my best friends got killed," he says. "His name was Olajuwon. When I heard he got killed, it made me sad, and it made me think about it like, 'That would have been me.' "
The year Asim’s friend was shot and killed, their high school, Castlemont, was in the news because of all the shootings nearby. Bullets reportedly flew into the school at one point. Wiggins decided to move her son to Oakland High School.
"My concern was safety, just for things that I experienced or seen when I came on campus," says Wiggins. "When I gotta leave work early just to pick my son up, and don’t even trust for him to walk literally a block away to get on the bus, that’s an issue."
Wiggins picked Oakland High partly because she had heard the district's African-American Male Achievement Program was strong there. Now she volunteers with the program, giving workshops to other parents on advocating for their kids, and helping them get better grades, graduate and go to college.
Wiggins believes tackling the problem of violence in the city and its impact in the schools is going to take parents like her working together. But she also wants the district to invest in more school counselors instead of more security officers.
California overall has the worst K-12 student-to-counselor ratio in the country. The most recent data from 2010-11 shows that ratio to be 1,016-to-1. Oakland has 24 school counselors, placed in about half of its middle and high schools. The district calculates a 679-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio based only on middle-and-high school enrollment. It recently agreed during labor negotiations to bring that ratio down to 600-to-1. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250-to-1.
In addition, Oakland has partnered with Alameda County and social service agencies to add dozens of mental health professionals on-site in the schools. But Wiggins says there still aren't enough.
"Schools need counselors, they need more case management, things of that sort, to deal with kids that are going through trauma," says Wiggins. "You gotta realize that there are a lot of kids that go to school, that either they know a friend or family member that has been killed or shot or murdered."
Oakland Unified has actually mapped out which schools have more violence and other stress factors in the neighborhood. You can see it: Red dots are the schools in areas with more violence or unemployment, or where it’s tough to find a supermarket selling fresh fruits and vegetables. The green and blue dots are schools with the least stress.
"We have [close to] 100 percent students of color and 99 percent free or reduced lunch -- that's ridiculous," says Marisa Morales, a third-grade teacher at Community United Elementary School. That statistic on the percentage of students getting subsidized meals is a measure that's widely used to gauge the number of students living in poverty.
"You can't tell me it's not segregated," Morales continues. "You go up to a hills school and you have demographics that don’t come close to what our school looks like."
Community United is hiring two additional interns to provide mental health services next year. Morales says there's a huge need. Like a lot of schools in Oakland, Community United has gotten by until now with one mental health counselor, paid for by Medi-Cal funds coming through the county.
Nine-year-old Jacqueline Funes was in Morales' class last year, before being shot in her front yard and left paralyzed. Jacqueline’s shooting brought a lot of other trauma to the surface.
"During our community meetings, it would come up. One of my students said, 'I’ve had three family members pass this year, I’ve gone to three funerals this year.' Another would say, 'I had this family member shot and died,' " says Morales.
The district sent crisis counselors after Jacqueline was shot, and Morales made sure each of her students was able to talk about what happened, either one-on-one or in a group. But after that week, the school was back to one counselor.
"That counselor only sees students that are on Medi-Cal already," says Morales. "She was not able to open any new cases. Which means, after Jacqueline was shot, none of my students received any further counseling beyond that week."
Morales knows that even with more counselors, there still won't be enough therapy for all the kids who need it. Researchers and advocates point to creating "trauma-sensitive schools," where all the teachers and staff understand the effects of trauma and how to teach children who live with it. Morales says more training for teachers would be ideal.
"When one of my students comes to school crying, because his mom was arrested over the weekend, and he’s afraid he won’t have anybody to go home to, I have nobody else to send that child to," says Morales. "That therapist? With the current structure? She can’t just pop in, and grab him and support him. She can’t give him emergency services. She would have to completely open a new case, which would involve contacting his parent or guardian, who is imprisoned, so it’s sort of a Catch-22."
Alex Briscoe, Alameda County’s health services director, says the county is working to put more counselors in the schools and train teachers and other providers but, he says, even if the district provided top-quality therapy for every Oakland student who needed it, schools alone can’t deal with the roots of trauma.
"You don’t treat away the things that are causing trauma in poor communities. Access to a therapist doesn't in and of itself reduce homicide rates," Briscoe says. "It doesn't shorten or mitigate the fact that communities of color are living in multigenerational poverty in ways that are new in our culture."
How do you change the equation of violence in neighborhoods with high unemployment and low graduation rates?
A lot of parents and teachers talk about "asset-based community development" -- investing in a neighborhood’s assets. The idea is to focus on things that tie a community together: for example, family businesses, community gardens and youth organizers.
Briscoe believes change can come in unexpected ways. He points to a county program that’s training youth from foster care and juvenile detention to become emergency medical technicians.
Nicole Wiggins agrees that people who live in the community should be agents for change. She says she moved to Oakland when she was young because the African-American community here has strong roots and a history of organizing.
"Like I tell my son, when you graduate and you out there, you doing better, you come back to your community and you help. ’Cause that’s how we help other kids get out of what they call the 'hood, the ghetto, whatever you want to call it," she says. "That’s how we get them kids up out of here."
Wiggins knows the best way to do this is to lead by example. It's why she says she will continue organizing other parents to raise their voices and come up with solutions to make their children's schools places where all kids can heal and learn.
"There might be a child out there like I was when I was young," says Wiggins. The kind of child, she says, who needs a caring adult to stand up for them.
This is the last in our three-part "Books and Bullets'' series about how chronic violence in some neighborhoods puts kids at a disadvantage in school, even before they walk in the door.