The results showed that on average five or six children in every classroom are burdened by mental, physical or emotional symptoms related to stressful events in their lives outside school, regardless of race, family income or neighborhood.
The screening was the first extensive survey of student exposure to trauma in the district, which welcomed the researchers and training they are bringing to schools to identify and support students.
It was part of a larger scientific study by education researchers at SRI International to test the effectiveness of school-based group therapy to improve student coping skills and in turn academic performance.
Seven of the district's 13 middle schools are participating in the first year of the four-year, $3.4 million study funded by the U.S. Department of Education. About 613 incoming sixth-graders, about 40 percent of the students in that category, were surveyed.
At Aptos Middle School, a high-performing school in the Balboa Terrace neighborhood, about half of the sixth-graders who took the survey reported experiencing at least one significant traumatic event.
"I just felt we needed to find out," said Aptos Principal Doug Dent. "There's a lot of behavior (among students) that didn't make a lot of sense to adults."
Students have been known to storm out of class for no apparent reason; overreact to minor encounters; yell or get in frequent fights; or get angry when asked to remove a coat or a hat. Others simply withdraw, refusing to participate or engage, teachers and administrators said.
"They can't benefit from the education they're getting," said Carl Sumi, senior education researcher at SRI, an independent research institute in Menlo Park.