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Over one million children are being exposed to a toxicity that frequently leads to emotional and health problems — not to mention serious trouble in school, says filmmaker James Redford. “You can’t hold it, see it or smell it, but it can kill just the same.”

The toxin is the trauma stemming from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), everything from parental divorce to domestic violence.  As Education Lab described last weekend, research shows that ACEs may be driving problem behaviors in thousands of Washington schoolchildren.

The standard response to students who act out has been suspension, even with kids as young as 5. But rarely is anyone working with those students when they’re sent home — on schoolwork or behavior — leading to what can become a chronic cycle of misbehavior, punishment and, eventually, academic failure.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Redford spent a year at Lincoln High in Walla Walla, home to some of the most difficult students in the region, and he profiled six of them as Principal Jim Sporleder spent a year experimenting with the trauma-informed approach instead of zero-tolerance punishment.

“Many students coming to Lincoln have had a history of truancy, behavioral problems and substance abuse,” says an administrator, conceding that traditional discipline has not worked.


According to Jane Stevens, who runs the ACEs Too High website, Lincoln went from 798 suspensions in 2009-’10, to 135 only one year later.

Interested in hearing more? The Seattle Times is hosting an event on Wednesday at South Seattle College, to share knowledge among students, teachers, parents and principals interested in new ways of handing school discipline. Redford’s film, “Paper Tigers” is screening twice at SIFF. First on Thursday, May 28, at 7 p.m. at  SIFF Cinema Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Avenue N., Seattle. Then again on Saturday, May 30 at 12:30 p.m. Same location.

And here’s the trailer for that film.  (Warning:  Contains profanity.)