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Popular documentary highlights method used by New Haven educators

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NEW HAVEN -- Hundreds of teachers made it out on a school night to drink in a revolutionary educational concept at Shubert Theater in New Haven.

They attended the sold-out Connecticut premiere of “Paper Tigers,” a documentary out of Washington State that looks at a different way to discipline.

“It's pretty straightforward stuff,” said Jamie Redford, the film’s director. He is the son of Robert Redford.

“If you take a deep breath and say it's not about me, it's about them and stay with them and have a conversation about this behavior rather than automatically kicking them out of class,” said Redford, briefly explaining what’s called “being trauma informed.”

For some New Haven principals, the approach is nothing new.

“It is a hot topic of conversation,” said Kelly O’Leary, principal of St. Martin de Porres Academy in New Haven.

O’Leary said she and her educators are using the “trauma informed” method daily.

“I was talking to a kid today who went from 0 to 60. Got really mad. Started screaming over something and I didn't understand why. What are you getting so angry and frustrated about? It can't be about asking you to sit up. It can't be about asking you to raise your hand. He started welling up and said, ‘I got in a really bad car accident last week,’ but he hadn't told anybody,” O’Leary said.

She's happy the film is shedding light on the “trauma informed” approach and can point to its success.

“Suspension numbers -- way down. In terms of fights, kids aren't having fights,” said O’Leary, citing some examples.

More than 700 school personnel--including teachers, principals and truancy officers--in the New Haven area have been trained on trauma-informed approach, according to a fact sheet included with a press kit about “Paper Tigers.”

At least some New Haven students are seeing the benefits.

“I was going through some things and it just, it helped me because it felt like somebody cared,” said Elisabeth Forrester, a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy.

Redford said that was the point filmmakers were trying to get across; sometimes children just need to be talked to and asked more questions.

He argued that “Paper Tigers” shows that digging beyond the surface of a behavioral problem can reap rewards and cost nothing.

“Sometimes the shift in your mindset is really enough,” Redford said.

“Paper Tigers” has a sister film in the works, too. “Resilience” is partly based on Strong Elementary School in New Haven. It’s more science-based, said Redford, who expects “Resilience” to be released next year.