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There's a hidden crisis among California's rural kids. Would this teen make it?

Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

About eight years ago, educators in Modoc County realized they had a serious problem.

Students kept melting down, becoming so angry or disruptive that they had to be pulled from classrooms. The county's suspension rate was about three times higher than the state average, and students were twice as likely as those statewide to be chronically absent.

"We realized we were dealing with something bigger than behavior," said Misti Norby, deputy superintendent of the Modoc County Office of Education. "We were like, what's going on with our kids?"

Teachers across Modoc County assessed their students, relying on a fact of small-town life that can be both a blessing and a curse: everyone knows everyone's business. They did an informal, anonymous tally of what are called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, which include abuse or neglect; a parent's death, incarceration or divorce; and mental illness or substance abuse in the home.

About 58% of kids in Modoc County, Norby said, were believed to have four or more ACEs, putting them at significantly higher risk later in life of suicide, substance abuse, chronic health problems and unemployment.

"It was very eye opening," Norby said. "We now function on: We know they have trauma. Somewhere. Somehow."


Models consistently show the state's highest rates of childhood trauma are in rural Northern California, where there is a dire shortage of both primary care and mental-health care providers.

The gun violence and poverty experienced by young people in some urban neighborhoods is well-documented in the media and popular culture. But these issues are as present, if not even more common, in rural areas. While homicide rates are lower, suicide rates are generally much higher in rural than urban counties.

Home to just 8,500 people, Modoc County is one of California's poorest, with a fifth of the population living in poverty.

People are drawn to the region's rugged natural beauty, seclusion and cheap housing. But in Alturas, the county seat, many storefronts along Main Street have long been boarded up. The last major sawmills closed three decades ago.


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