When Schools Refuse to “Get” Trauma

For four years my young-adult daughter Ashley and I worked with a reporter from The Indianapolis Star. Our goal was simple – an accurate, in-depth story about the devastating effects of trauma.

Frankly, more people need to understand and act – not pity. 

The result was a lengthy five-part article – with Part Four the most enlightening about trauma. It’s a great read for teachers, mental health providers and family members.

Christmas 2003

Unfortunately, the article failed to describe the home environment. The daily effort. Everything wasn’t doom and gloom. More days than not, Ashley put tremendous effort into self-regulation. Somedays she failed. But my family never judged. Most importantly, my family never stopped loving her – even on days when she isolated.  

The greatest challenges came from outside the home – thus re-traumatizing Ashley. Thus creating additional challenges for my daughter – with her family often at a loss of the best ways to stay connected.

Here are excerpts from Part Four. They give incredible insight into the lack of consistency in mental health treatment. They reinforce the importance of trauma-sensitive schools.


Part of Ashley was numb, disassociated from the confusion, hurt and anxious from being given away to a stranger. Ashley recalled, “It wasn’t the first place that I was dropped off.”

She believed Craig didn’t really want her. He wanted her brothers. Now she was living in his home, and he expected her to love and be the big sister to these boys she barely knew.

She felt like an “extra.”

Ashley had lived through at least half a dozen of what experts call “adverse childhood experiences,” which include abuse, neglect and family challenges.

Those experiences shaped how Ashley interacted with others. She said she didn’t feel the need to get attached to people. At her core she wanted to be left alone.

In middle school there were fights and suspensions. Craig said it was one rough day after another.

“I felt like I was on speed dial with the school,” he recalled. 

“I just really had like a bull’s-eye on my forehead,” Ashley recalled years later. “Because if just seemed like I could not do anything right.”

In May 2002, when Ashley was in sixth grade, a 14-year-old boy led her into a wooded area behind the middle school, exposed his penis and demanded oral sex. He pulled up Ashley’s blouse and fondled her breasts. He pulled up her skirt and touched her crotch. The boy threatened to “beat her until she bleeds” if she told anyone. She didn’t tell – even after a student reported seeing something and and the assistant principal and Craig asked what had happened. The next day she took a knife to school and  made sure everyone knew she had it. 

School officials tried to protect Ashley during those tumultuous years. They kept her out of the hallways during passing periods. In middle school they allowed her to eat lunch with her math teacher so she didn’t have to interact with students in the cafeteria. More than once, they allowed her to finish school at home. 

Their efforts would work for a time, but nothing lasted.

There was a direct correlation, Craig said, between a teacher’s ability to make Ashley feel safe and how well she performed in the classroom. She was a better student for teachers who made her feel valued and showed empathy for her past trauma. 

Some teachers tried to shame Ashley when she misbehaved, saying she should have known better. It’s a technique that can work well on people who haven’t experienced trauma. But for Ashley, that shame eroded her trust.

Ashley saw a host of mental health professionals over the years. She was in and out of St. Vincent Stress Centers. She also spent 3 /1/2 months in residential placement.

By the time Ashley moved in Craig’s home, she already had been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Ashley and me

Ashley also had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after the extensive sexual abuse she suffered in the Kimmerlings’ home.

She was later diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.  Click for more info.

Craig said mental health professionals also misdiagnosed Ashley with a variety of other disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and reactive attachment disorder. Other diagnoses, such as major depressive disorder and conduct disorder, were actually symptoms of her trauma, he said. 

Too often Craig said, mental health professionals didn’t understand trauma. He said they treated individual symptoms rather than Ashley as a person.

“We were dealing with the same behaviors for six, seven years,” he said. “We kept trying to call it something else. But it was the same trauma-related condition from day one.”

Each new diagnosis came with new medication or a change to one of the existing ones. But the outcome was always the same. Or sometimes, Craig said, the outcome was worse.

Residential placement didn’t help, either.  Click for more info.

“Oftentimes people think, ‘Oh, we’re going to spend all this money and put an adolescent into a highly artificial setting and then apply a somewhat cookie-cutter approach and hope that they’re going to be better three or four months later without the daily support of their family'” he said. “And it didn’t work.”

The most successful initiative was one in middle school in which the juvenile court, school and mental health professionals worked together: the Dawn Project.

At home Ashley and Craig received family therapy. At school teachers and school staff learned Ashley’s history and how best to work with her. And a mentor followed Ashley all day.

Ashley Tindley

Ashley thrived. Her team considered her “a model child.” She met her probation conditions. She followed her father’s rules. Her grades improved. She served as a junior counselor at church camp. She attended a fine arts camp. She wrote and illustrated a book.

But it was an expensive program.

In December 2003, after five months in the Dawn Project, the team decided Ashley no longer needed an educational mentor. Her prior criminal cases were closed, and she was released from probation.

Officials, in effect, declared success and moved on.

Ashley was in trouble again a month later.

To read the entire Part 4 of “Ashley’s Story” in The Indianapolis Star, open the link below. You will also find links to Parts 1-3.

Scarred and abandoned once again, Ashley’s rage take control

To follow Ashley’s advocacy, check out her special Facebook page. Then “Like” it. No Shame Know Shame

Thank you for supporting trauma survivors. Thank you for supporting the trauna-sensitive schools movement. DCP


Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE

To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love

To support my daughter Ashley’s sexual trauma advocacy, “Like” her special Facebook page No Shame Know Shame

To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page NoLimitsAndrew – Andrew Peterson

To watch Andrew’s amazing ESPN 14-minute documentary, click here. Andrew Peterson ESPN Documentary

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