GUEST VOICE: Healing Collective Trauma through SEL

by L’aurelei Durr

Robb Elementary, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, and Sandy Hook Elementary. School shootings have become too commonplace in recent American history. As of October 2022, there have been two school shootings in Oakland Unified public schools —one at Madison Park Academy and the other at King Estates School Campus. These shootings hit a little too close to home as I have spent my entire teaching career in Oakland schools. The day after the most recent Oakland school shooting, our administration team and the whole school staff spent the morning making sure families and students had people they could reach out to for support to process the event. I encountered parents who were reluctant to leave their children at school, fearing something might happen again. Schools are no longer an entirely safe space for our kids or even the adults that work on campus. How can we ensure that students and staff feel a sense of physical and psychological safety? While it isn’t a fix-all remedy to the things that plague our communities and cause trauma, the teaching of explicit social-emotional skills is missing in many of our schools.

The moment school shootings take place, there is a collective trauma that occurs. When tragedies like this happen, we need to respond in ways that will reduce the stress and anxiety felt by everyone. Now more than ever, I think it’s crucial that schools adopt a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum and practices that will help us cultivate empathy for others and navigate our emotions. How we express our feelings can be either violent or nonviolent, and we must strive to work through those heavy emotions instead of taking action based on our immediate thoughts and feelings, especially when we are in crisis mode. Suppose we want to practice Ahimsa (nonviolence) truly. In that case, we should address our mental and emotional states so that we do not hold on to trauma and harm ourselves from within through our thoughts and feelings or allow our emotions to come out in ways that do not align with our values. We only hurt ourselves and our community when we hold on to negative emotions. Sometimes when we lash out in moments of frustration, we may even harm the students we are supposed to protect. SEL will give adults and children the proper tools to regulate their emotions.

Ahimsa, in essence, does not equate to non-action. In no way am I saying that we should get over it, “turn the other cheek,” or only focus on the individual or interpersonal aspects of violence we experience. I emphasize that acknowledging our emotions and feelings is the first step in the journey. Processing our emotions in healthy ways will help us think clearly enough to take appropriate actions to stop the violence in our schools on a larger systemic scale. In her book Onward, Elena Aguilar states, “When our emotions are muddled, it’s hard to have a clear picture of reality. We can’t act with intention or clarity.” If we want examples of clarity and intentionality, we can look to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Delano Grape Strike, and Gandhi’s own Salt March in India. These examples of action show us the influential role civil disobedience and nonviolence have played in the fight to achieve equitable conditions for the systematically marginalized and disenfranchised. SEL allows us to channel the resilience that has kept communities of color going strong for generations. After we get our minds and hearts straight, we can take our cause to the streets just like our radical and courageous ancestors before us.


L’aurelei Durr is an educator who has worked in Oakland schools for over 10 years. She has taught at both the elementary and middle school levels. She is passionate about promoting equity for all students through culturally and linguistically responsive teaching practices. L’aurelei is currently an Assistant Principal of Instruction and Coach in Oakland, CA.

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