Safe Spaces Become Learning Spaces for Children Fleeing Violence

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Families and educators in Ohio aren't the only ones coping with back-to-school challenges during a pandemic.

Domestic violence shelters also are working tirelessly to turn safe spaces into learning spaces.



Terri Heckmen, CEO for the Battered Women's Shelter of Summit and Medina Counties, explained their residents have children in 14 different schools; some attending classes in person, and others online.

She said they were ready when classes started for their current residents, and hope to move quickly to get any incoming children connected for their schooling.



"When we bring families in, the average is children are missing two days," Heckmen said. "We can get some of them back up the next day, depending on complications of the actual domestic violence. But we would like kids to not miss any schooling. If we can get them up and running right away, we'd like to be able to do that."

To accommodate learning, some shelters are converting living areas into classroom spaces; others are changing mealtimes to match school schedules. And Heckmen said they're working with local districts to bring in tutors, and have hired a new staff member with educational experience to work with kids.

Sonia Ferencik, youth advocacy and trauma-informed services coordinator for the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, said life is turned upside down for children entering a shelter setting with a parent.

Most have experienced a great deal of trauma from witnessing violence, which she said can take a toll on learning.

"A lot of times kids have difficulty; 'stressed brains,' it's been said," Ferencik explained. "It's hard to learn, because you're in your 'survival brain,' as opposed to your prefrontal cortex or your 'thinking brain.' "

Ferencik said there are specific advocates in some shelters working with kids on calming activities to help them feel safe and ready to learn. And then, there are the practical considerations for getting school work done.

"Do they have a desk?" Ferencik asked. "Shelters are always looking for people to help with school supplies, backpacks, and it may be access to laptops and hotspots to be able to reach your school."

She added the shelters have done tremendous work to stay open and clean during the pandemic, and will continue to adjust their operations to ensure the safety of survivors and their children.

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