Minority Students in American Schools, Dr. Henderson Discusses the Impact of Race Related Trauma on Students


Dr. Dawn Henderson has a Ph.D in Psychology, and is a Principal Investigator in the Collective Health and Education Equity Research (CHEER) Lab at North Carolina A&T State University. Her research is focused on investigating institutionalized racism within the education system, and the ways in which black and brown students are (psychologically) impacted. She has lots of published research around this topic, has provided numerous commentaries on her work and, has written a variety of professional blogs.


What drew you to investigating the ways in which race related trauma in schools psychologically impacts (black and brown) students?

“Six years ago, I began this research trajectory evaluating a community intervention for suspended adolescents. I started reading about the school-to-prison pipeline and educational inequalities existing in the United States. From 2011 to 2014, my research focused on school and community-based interventions for suspended adolescents, using qualitative and quantitative methods to examine the ways in which these programs increased school inclusion, a sense of connectedness, and other developmental assets.”

“The majority of the students were Black and Latino adolescents and, during interviews and focus groups, students would begin to discuss some of their painful experiences in school. I then wanted to see if this was evident in other students’ experiences so I began a pilot study two years ago examining the K-12 experiences of Black and Latino students. We used retrospective accounts and the emergent data was quite disturbing. Students, repeatedly, discussed their encounters with alienation, discrimination and varying forms of violence. They mentioned feeling disconnected and questioning their worth and competence. Some, mentioned feeling depressed and in a constant state of frustration. Of course, they all pushed through but these stories were quite sad.”

“An undergraduate student, Krishanna Prince, began looking specifically at this experiences and implications on psychological well-being. She began to identify consistent experiences with alienation and discrimination and students sense of helplessness, powerlessness, meaningless and social estrangement. In the Collective Health and Education Equity Research (CHEER) lab we hope to explore how these experiences translate into declines in mental health, wellbeing, but also examine the coping mechanisms students engage to be resilient and push through school.”

How prevalent is race related trauma within an educational setting?

“While our pilot study reflects a small sample of students in the public education system, I would argue these experiences are quite prevalent and manifest at varying levels in the lives of racially diverse students. We recently prepared a conceptual paper for Social Science and Medicine and reviewed a body of literature from 2006 to 2016. We found numerous studies documented the negative effects of alienation, racial discrimination, and violence on the mental health of students. These studies span various school settings and sample sizes, but there are some consistent themes.”

“Teachers and other school personnel are more likely to use physical violence against Black students.
Black and Latino students are disproportionately suspended for arbitrary school offenses and funneled into remedial and special education programs.
Racially diverse students experience more racial microaggressions from teachers and peers.”

What are the common psychological effects of race based trauma on students? What does this mean for black and brown students? How does age, gender and sexual orientation of the students factor in to these effects?

“In our review, mentioned previously, we found students who experienced alienation, racial discrimination, and violence were more likely to exhibit higher rates of anxiety, depressive symptoms, amotivation, substance use, externalizing behaviors (e.g., higher levels of aggression) and internalizing behaviors (e.g., self-doubt and insecurity). Our review also found students who reported more experiences with alienation, racial discrimination, and violence were more likely to experience disassociation and were at an increased risk of dropping out of school and engaging in delinquent behavior.”

“Black and Brown (when I use brown we aim to be inclusive of Latino, Indigenous American, and Pacific Islander adolescents) students are marginalized within the public education system in the United States. Historically, and even today, these groups represent, collectively, some of the lowest performing students on statewide exams, highest group of students in school dropout rates, school arrests, and other indicators. Young people who fall within these groups are more vulnerable to poverty, community violence, etc. I would propose understanding the developmental context, the public school setting, can help us understand some of the structural and interpersonal factors that influence academic outcomes. Trauma disrupts one’s ability to function and, while many individuals have the coping mechanisms to alleviate the stress and harm associated with trauma, the lingering effects of these experiences can be detrimental.”

“In our review, we found that young people are extremely aware of alienation and racial discrimination as early as elementary school and will begin to exhibit declines in one’s self-concept and efficacy. The review also found that males and females experience race-related trauma in varying ways and use various forms of coping. We also understand the intersection between race, gender and sexual orientation can muddle how we think about trauma within the public education system. There is an emerging body of literature that is beginning to understand what it means to be a sexual minority (LGBTQ) and a person of color in the public school system and the ways in which these young people experience discrimination and violence.”

“We want to expand our work in the Collective Health and Education Equity Research (CHEER) lab to look at these experiences from a life course perspective so we can attempt to answer questions related to stages of development. For example, do young or older adolescents use complex coping mechanisms to combat encounters with alienation, racial discrimination and violence?”

What can experiencing this specific type of trauma do to an individual’s locus of control?

“In our work, powerlessness is a frequent theme among our participants. Powerlessness denotes one’s belief about their ability to change a situation or problem. I believe this ties in well with a locus of control. When young people do not believe they have the power or feel empowered enough to challenge injustice then they often experience powerlessness, helplessness, and apathy. While some of the participants express this powerlessness, they relied on affirmative messages from their families and friends and still believed they could be successful in school. I believe a locus of control is an important construct to consider, while we did not look at this specifically, I think there is some overlap with the constructs mentioned.”

Are there legal school policies in place that exacerbate or cause race related trauma?

“Yes, institutional racism is prevalent in the public education system and quite evident in zero tolerance policies, criteria used to track students in gifted education programs, and, to some extent, policies that require school districts to rezone schools. Critical race theorists would argue the policies enacted in public schools that appear to be progressive have been subversive and usually overturned, to some extent, due to political forces.”

“I have done quite a bit of work on interventions for suspended adolescents so I can speak to the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994. This legislative bill tied federal funding for states to those who adopted policies designed to address violence in public schools. States wanted to gain funding, so many adopted “zero tolerance policies” as a way to curtail violence. School districts enforced policies with a great level of discretion and hired school resource officers (i.e., police officers in school), which translated into an increase in school suspensions, school arrests, and the over-representation of Black. Latino, and Indigenous American students suspended.”

“When the research started to look at the offenses committed behind suspensions, it was discovered a significant number of these students were receiving repeated suspensions and suspended for non-violent school infractions (e.g., dress code violations, skipping school, excessive noise, disrespect). Also, many of these students were from economically disadvantaged backgrounds so, in some cases, without community supports or parental supervision they have a higher risk exposure. The continued reliance on school suspension and arrests is now coined the “school-to-prison” pipeline. There is an extensive body of research arguing the ineffectiveness of school suspension and the need to use positive behavioral interventions and restorative justice practices.”

“While the Gun Free Schools Act tied federal funding to the adoption of “zero tolerance” policies there has been no federal initiative to withhold federal funding from states with high levels of suspension and disparities between Black, brown, and white students. Under the Obama administration, several states were under investigation by the Attorney General’s office regarding some of their suspension policies (e.g.. Alabama) but I am not sure if they were penalized. I do know these states still have similar suspension policies. Also, I want to acknowledge these disparities in suspension did not begin post 1994, research suggest these were evident back in the 1970s, so we are talking about these effects present over at least two generations.”
Within the context of your article, How do you feel about the current and future state of America’s education system? Can this trauma be decreased? Can a negative school climate be changed?

“I try not to be discouraged and remain optimistic in my work. Public education in the United States is a highly stressful context, for administrators, students, teachers, and, to some degree, parents. When I left undergrad, more than 20 years ago, I started out teaching middle school. I worked in a school where the majority of the students were Black and received free and reduced-lunch. They entered school from other public schools, spaces that ignored them, passed them, still under prepared. It was a stressful environment, consequently, I do not teach middle school anymore.”

“Similar to race-related trauma, the school can encompass many traumatic experiences across various groups. We have teachers fighting (not physically) administration, other teachers, students, parents, everyone is caught in a cycle of violence to some extent. Schools are increasingly diverse and comprised of young people from all backgrounds and persuasions. Young people are developing anxiety, depression, and symptoms of suicidal ideation that challenges the capacity of schools.

“We exist in a highly competitive culture, most parents want their children to be gifted, take college prep courses, and receive the best quality education. Our current school culture is fixated on the bottom line, student performance, measured through standardized test that remove the creativity, innovation, and exploratory nature of education. Consequently, school districts are doing what they can to meet the numbers and, in some cases, finding ways to exclude those they perceive “at the bottom.” There are so many things happening that can be counterproductive to the development of young people and this is a sad reality.”

“However, I want to believe in our capacity as human beings. We see expanding our research in the CHEER lab into asset-building models that extend into the community, schools and with families of racially oppressed children and adolescents. We want to delve into the use of mindfulness with teachers and students, stress-reduction and management strategies, and work with families on using affirming socialization messages with their children in order to buffer race-related stressors. We want to work within schools that have transformative leaders who see issues of racial injustice as a problem and want to work to alleviate it. So, I believe we can change the structure and culture of schools (climate) in order to address racial inequality in the United States.”

What would you say to individuals (students) who have experienced such trauma?

“Wow, this is a tough question.”

“I would like to encourage students who have experienced race-related trauma to reach out to us at the CHEER Lab (dxhenderson@ncat.edu) because we are interested in your stories. I believe it is critical to share more stories about these experiences. We want to use stories to counter the “neo-race/colorblind society” people believe we exist in and we are interested in facilitating programs and other initiatives that brings this issue to the forefront. Naming our struggles and source of trauma is an important step to healing, we have to give it a name in order to find solutions to address it.”

“On a healing level, I would like to encourage students to find a support system that provides them with affirming and positive messages about their abilities and capacity. Socializing messages play a major role in how we think about ourselves and our abilities. I would encourage them to find a therapist that uses culturally responsive and oriented methodologies in their work who can provide a space for students to share their experiences and gain some help and strategies. I would like to encourage students to challenge their issues of fear and distrust when it comes to education and learning certain subjects by finding ways to build small successes versus focusing on failures.”

Is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge who has helped you with your studies or research

“Yes, I want to acknowledge Drs. Maya Corneille and Anna Lee, Principal Investigators in the CHEER Lab, and the following undergraduate research students who have been a part of this evolving work: Alexus Lunsford, Christopher Clark, Christen Edwards, Krishanna Prince, DeCory Lee, and Kirstyn McLeod.”

Thank you Dr. Henderson for participating in this interview!

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  1. I believe this is a very important article for everyone to read. From what I have heard and comparing it with what I’ve read, a lot of people experience this and the people that do experience it feel as though they are alone and going through it all by themselves.

    How can individuals help to break the school-to-prison pipeline? Is there anything we can do on an individual level to combat it or lessen the likelihood that children go down this “pipeline?”

    I’m glad there is a way to contact CHEER lab and bring together and help anyone that experienced the isolation, depression, anxiety and amotivation.

  2. As a European reading this I was reminded yet again, that American High School movies are not an accurate representation of what is happening in American Schools.
    What can students, teachers, parents etc. reading this do in their everyday life to go against this trend? Is there some kind of policy that could be implemented?

  3. Sadly, I’ve seen, up close, quite a few of these things in action. For example, earlier this year, the school system adjacent to mine adopted a new dress code rule, not allowing afros larger than 2″, dreadlocks, “cornrolls”(a mispelling of ‘cornrows’) and “distracting” braids. Also, on the local news, two young women were interviewed about how they had to miss their senior prom because their dreadlocks and braids were “violating the dress code”. I’m upset that this isn’t a small time thing, but I’m glad that others see it and acknowledge it. What do you think would be the best way to protest the unreasonable dress codes and policies?

  4. I’m very connected to the impact of racial trauma and discrimination. Being part of the Latinx community has had its benefits but has also introduced me to micro-aggressions and social discrimination among my ignorant peers. I haven’t necessarily gone through an immense personal and racial trauma. Rather, I’ve been able to really relate and sympathize with many of the POC community today that get mistreated in classrooms for rudimentary differences. That’s why I love how this interview entailed some really well thought out explanations on why the problem exists, how we should try to address it, and why we should address it.

  5. Being apart of the Black community has allowed me to observe and slightly experience the racial trauma described in this article. I saw many of my fellow classmates and friends fall victim to the school-to-prison pipeline. In addition, you can see the beginning of the racial trauma at an early age. I remember the alienation I felt for being one of the few black kids in my elementary school classes. I dealt with my trauma by suppressing it for years and acting like it never existed or was not an issue in my life. In order to fix this problem, we must first acknowledge that there is one and maybe we could change the current school system and the institutional racism it has.

  6. This was such a sad but very honest and important subject to read. It really breaks my heart to hear such things that happening still, but it’s a real problem. I think Dr. Dawn Henderson is doing a great job in her research and helping to fight and make changes through CHEER Lab. I really enjoyed reading this interview and it helped open my eyes a little bit more to more ongoing issues in the US. I mean I knew we have and always will have problems, but to hear that this is getting worst and students are getting suspended for petty reasons really is showing that it’s issues that are not as superficial as we thought. I’d like to know what schools and/or what areas of the US that she’s getting her research from. For example, is she getting it all from North Carolina or from other states around the US? Also, since these black and brown students that are getting discriminated, is there a better way for them to reach out to people for help? It’s obviously not working by just opening up to the teachers and other staff or their parents because this issue is still undergoing. Is there things that public should know more to spread more awareness to this issue?

  7. For people unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of institutionalized racism in the United States, this article is a fantastic place to start learning. Terminology used like “school-to-prison pipeline” create opportunities for readers to delve deeper into their own research in order to come to their own conclusions and opinions on the topics presented which is important in keeping an educated public.

    Through detailed analysis of her own studies, the interviewee, Dr. Henderson, helps readers to understand the problems that institutionalize racism in schools can have for individual students on a personal scale rather than a larger, more difficult to comprehend scale. She mentions specific ailments like depression and frustration that puts a name to feelings caused by racism that some people in this country may not have been able to understand prior.

    The inclusion of other studies with similar themes to Dr. Henderson’s K-12 study is important in understanding that race-related trauma in schools is no new obstacle, it’s something that students of color have been struggling with for years way back beyond the generations of our grandparents. For something so clearly terrible and unfair to have continued this long begs the question: “what can be done to fix our education system to protect the mental and physical health of our fellow human beings?”

    My father was an immigrant to this country from South America, he came here as a school-aged child and often spoke about how difficult life was. How he couldn’t focus because the pigment of his skin made him a target of ridicule, how nobody made an effort to help him understand his fast-talking, english-speaking peers, and how at times dropping out and entering the workforce seemed like a better option than pushing through middle and high school. I’m sure that there is somebody like this in all of our lives, somebody hurt by a deep-seeded racism in our country. I urge you to talk to that person, ask them what they wish someone would have done for them and then be the someone that makes that difference, either for your friend or someone else.

    Connect with Dr. Henderson on Linkedin here to learn more about her studies and follow her future work:


  8. I think this interview effectively summarizes the pre-college educational career of the millions of minority students in the United States to those who do not know what it’s like. It connects our own experiences and those of our friends to evidence and studies. In other words, it is comforting and important to have, especially when standing up to institutionalized racism.

    My parents made it their goal to move us away from an environment heavy in racial discrimination and prejudice, so the only question I have pertains to the location of the school. What can we do to combat areas with racism ingrained in their culture and way of life?

  9. I am from Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States. This article perfectly sums up what it means to be a minority in the US. My case is slightly different (I am no longer in high school, and the K-12 educational system here varies), but one particular fragment really impacted me: “When young people do not believe they have the power or feel empowered enough to challenge injustice then they often experience powerlessness, helplessness, and apathy.”

    As a subjugated minority in the United States, people need to talk about this. We live in an increasingly globalizing world, and that extends to all aspects: cultural, economic, and social integration. Therefore, minorities will only keep coming into the educational system, and if this—from the beginning—is rigged against them, what can be done for them to be successful? What can motivate people in power to effect changes to harmful public policy?

    Pertaining to technical writing, there is a typo here and there, but it mostly doesn’t take much from the flow of the article. It’s trivial. Overall, this is something that many should read.

  10. I found this article to be one that wasn’t necessarily eye opening but instead affirming of the experiences of many black and brown students across the country, myself included many years ago. I was fortunately lucky enough to have had such a strong support system and a couple of resources to turn to in order to get to where I am today but even in retrospect from the public charter school that I went to when I was younger in the “inner-city”, that was not an option for many other black and brown students. In the elementary schools, there were high rates of suspensions and way more focus on standardized testing in order to receive funding for the institution instead of actual focus on attending to and educating these children. Even when moving on to high schools, having things like police officers and metal detectors in schools perpetuates a form of violence against black and brown students who already are taught that they are threats to society and the enemy of law enforcement. To have that continue to be the message within schools instead of treating it as a pace that could be a haven or a safe space for these students to thrive is sickening and like Dr. Henderson says it is good to remain optimistic but at the same time, there still are very few resources to relieve the trauma these kids go through from age 4/5 to adulthood.

  11. I agree, an excellent first step would be naming our struggles and source of trauma, however, is that a realistic expectation given the very powerlessness felt of the participants. It seems as though the perpetuation of an educational system whose outcomes directly cause a “school -to-prison” pipeline is not coincidental but purposeful. A public social outrage is needed, surely better outcomes would serve the greater good of society at large. Lev Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory is largely known and he states, “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). Which leads me to believe that the American school system has sorely failed a huge dimension of our population.
    I read an article, ‘Your Pedagogy Might be More Aligned with Colonialism than You Realize.’ by Jamila Lyiscott, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University, that challenges an old assumption about our education system and the colonization of language into the dominant cultures, starting in the grades K-12. I believe we may need to seriously give consideration to the message, are we silencing and marginalizing our children by not hearing them speak in their own voices. Is the disempowerment started as early as grades K-12. Where do we lose these American children? And what can be done to move forward and produce positive social and learning environments for our students, especially those brown and black students, that have been disproportionately impacted by negative social interaction early in their childhood and continues in many cases through to adulthood.
    In order to effect change, we need to identify a model that works. My questions is does such a model environment exist in the US for black and brown students, and if not how close are we to implementing successful models? I am grateful to Dr. Dawn Henderson and the CHEER Lab for their work on race related trauma. I am hoping her work will continue to open a broader conversation that would lead to solutions. We need to maximize a supportive environment for all of our American children.
    So, to our astute European reader who made the comment that American High Schools movies are not an accurate representation of what is happening in American Schools, you are correct.

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