Making Garfield classes more trauma-friendly.


“I feel like my lungs are closing, like I’m in this tight space, and I start to sweat and shake.” It sounds like one of those night- mares you get during finals week, the kind that you can’t forget even when you wake up. But for senior Jane Smith (name changed for privacy), this was real life. It happened her sophomore year, when reading The Kite Runner in literature class. Although Jane had made it through the rape scene depicted in the book, she had not been warned about an attempted suicide that occurs towards the end of the novel.

“It gives you flashbacks,” said Smith, “And when I get a panic attack, I have to leave class to sit in the bathroom and cry.” It is painful to imagine Jane having to go through this alone. But the even more up- setting reality is that this could be a regular occurrence in Garfield classrooms. Jane is not alone – in fact, she is among nearly 17% of Garfield students who have struggled with serious suicidal thoughts in the past 12 months, according to the Garfield Healthy Youth Survey.

Let’s use Kite Runner, a novel that is mandatory in the 10th grade literature curriculum, as a model. Within this unit, the 17% of suicidal students must endure reading a suicide attempt scene; the 20% of students who have experience physical abuse from an adult must read through accounts of child abuse; the 13% of students who have been sexually assaulted must read a graphic rape scene. Combined, this is roughly 50% of students in every class who experience some sort of trauma-related triggering in reading this
one novel.

One of the main reasons why it’s so important to protect students from triggering is that the effects of re-traumatization can last a lifetime. According to, even indirect exposure to traumatic material can trigger the “ fight or flight” system, releasing a rush of stress hormones. “You can’t just sit through that,” said Smith, “It’s so hard to have everything ood at you when you’re all alone.” The more frequently this stress response system is activated, the more likely a student is to incur permanent damage to their brain and internal organs. “I still think about that time in class,” said Smith, “It leaves you very unsettled for the rest of the year.” Increased exposure to trauma-related material also over-develops parts of the brain involving fear and anxiety, responsible for the paranoia that Smith described, and inhibits brain regions to do with logic and behavioral control.

One of the most common solutions, is- suing trigger warnings, is not a new idea to Garfield. However, a truly safe classroom environment requires this to become a more standardized and consistent practice. The most common type of trigger warning is simply a verbal statement to students, warning them of what traumatic subject will be en- countered. However, as Smith points out, trigger warnings should also include specific details like page number or what time in class the topic will be discussed. “That way, I could prepare myself and read that part alone,” said Smith. Students who are triggered by this subject should have the option to leave, or the teacher could arrange for stu- dents to read/watch this portion in an environment where they feel safer. This goes for both teachers and students – if you’re planning on making a comment that involves a triggering topic, you are responsible for protecting your classmates by issuing a warning.

Trigger warnings have been a controversial topic in college classrooms across the nation, as the debate between safe spaces and free speech rages on. Many people suggest that it is impossible to expect students and teachers to keep track of every single possible trigger, as everyone experiences trauma differently. However, the Garfield community should at least be responsible for the most common triggering topics like suicide, rape/sexual assault, and familial/domestic abuse. If there is roughly one student in every average-sized Garfield classroom who is recovering from a recent suicide attempt, we simply cannot a ord to be lenient with our trigger warning policies. If students and sta all make a conscious e ort to create more trauma-friendly classrooms, we can all learn safely and con dent that no one is su ering silently.