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First-in-nation lawsuit in California: Must schools address student trauma?

Several students and teachers filed a class-action lawsuit on Monday in a bid to make California’s Compton Unified School District address the needs of students affected by trauma.

A group of students and teachers filed a first-of-its-kind class-action lawsuit on Monday to try to compel California’s Compton Unified School District to take into account the needs of students affected by trauma.

Researchers have found that childhood trauma – such as abuse or witnessing violence – can interfere with development and interrupt children’s ability to focus on learning. But if students get appropriate help, the negative effects often can be overcome.

At a time when many school districts across America are attempting to take the emotional needs of their students into account and craft discipline policies that touch on the root causes of troubling behavior, the case raises two key questions: To what degree should schools be expected to address the effects of childhood trauma? And, is a lawsuit that frames such effects as a disability – as this suit does – the best way to ensure that schools do better by these students?

In Compton, near Los Angeles, many students have witnessed violent deaths or have been placed in foster care because of abuse, neglect, or drug addiction within their families. The lawsuit alleges that the district has not offered training to staff to understand the effects of trauma on students and that it has done little to provide mental-health counseling or other supports. Instead, it contends, students dealing with multiple traumas are frequently punished and excluded in ways that make it particularly difficult for them to succeed in school – often getting put into what civil rights activists term the school-to-prison pipeline.

Plaintiff Peter P., for example, is a 17-year-old who was abused as a young boy, went through various foster homes, and ended up being a caretaker for an ill adoptive parent, according to the lawsuit. He witnessed his best friend in middle school shot to death and has seen more than 30 other people shot. Although he has shown ability and received high grades at times, he has also been absent and failed classes because of depression and anger.

Peter’s schools in Compton have not inquired into the reason for his absences or offered counseling support, the lawsuit claims. Most recently, when he was homeless this spring, he slept on the roof of the Dominguez High School cafeteria. He was suspended and threatened with arrest for trespassing if he tried to return to school, the legal complaint says.

“There is no greater enemy to learning than unaddressed trauma,” says Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, part of the pro bono law firm Public Counsel, which filed the case in conjunction with Irell & Manella LLP in the US District Court for the Central District of California.

The district’s lack of attention to trauma violates federal anti-discrimination laws requiring accommodations for students with disabilities, according to the lawsuit, because disabilities include conditions that cause “impairment of a normal, everyday activity like learning, thinking, concentrating, focusing,” Mr. Rosenbaum says.

“The children in Compton Unified require the accommodations that the law mandates, and they require it now; it’s urgent business. But there are many, many other school districts ... where the same claims apply, and we are seeking here to establish a precedent,” Rosenbaum says.

Compton school officials did not know before Monday that the suit would be filed. Before having the opportunity to read through the complaint, Micah Ali, president of the board of trustees, sent a statement to the Monitor via e-mail: “The District remains eager to work with any organizations or individuals who share our mission to provide our students with a 21st century education, one that especially addresses some of the severe disadvantages faced by our community’s youth. But like school districts across this state, especially those who serve working class families, we are constantly challenged to find the resources to meet every identifiable need.... [A]ny allegation that the District does not work hard to deal with consequences of childhood trauma on a daily basis is completely unfounded.”

In requesting that the school district create a trauma-sensitive environment through staff training and new policies, the lawsuit references partnerships that a number of districts have set up along these lines.

In the San Francisco Unified School District, for instance, the district and private grant-makers paid for trauma-related training for some teachers, school social workers, and nurses. The district also revamped its discipline policy.

One common effect of trauma is that a student may be “easily triggered into survival mode by something that isn’t actually a threat,” says Joyce Dorado, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “Instead of people trying to help that kid, a lot of time that kid gets labeled as a bad kid, an aggressive kid,” says Professor Dorado, who founded and directs the UCSF HEARTS program (Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools) to foster trauma sensitivity in the local school district.

With training, educators learn to ask students what’s been happening to them and build up relationships of trust. One school found that after a year of participating in HEARTS, violent student incidents dropped 42 percent and disciplinary referrals dropped by 32 percent, the UCSF School of Medicine reported.

Dorado acknowledges that not all school districts have the resources to place social workers in schools the way San Francisco does, but she says she is learning from colleagues in Washington State about a “lighter touch” approach they’ve used, with the goal of creating “a more scalable, sustainable model that can be implemented across California.”

The lawsuit’s approach is novel, Dorado says. “This is a problem that requires collective impact. To the degree our legal systems and our advocates can contribute to that ... it’s hard to argue with that.” 

But she adds that she hopes the use of disabilities law as a framework does not lead to schools starting to diagnose a bunch of kids with trauma as disabled. “There are plenty of communities who are on the downside of power who feel really strongly this is not the language they want to apply to their children,” she says.

Massachusetts advocates have taken a legislative approach, helping to pass a Safe and Supportive Schools law in 2014, which puts an “infrastructure in place into which we can weave trauma sensitivity,” says Susan Cole, project director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative at Massachusetts Advocates for Children in Boston.

The law gives schools training and grants to create environments that foster positive relationships and help students regulate their emotions and behavior. Its goal is to have schools better integrate initiatives such as social and emotional learning, bullying prevention, trauma sensitivity, dropout prevention, and the reduction of suspensions and expulsions.

“We don’t believe trauma sensitivity can be forced on people,” Ms. Cole says, and to be done right, school leaders have to be on board.

Rosenbaum says he hopes Compton will agree to address trauma without the lawsuit having to go to trial. Even in a budget-tight district, he says, it can be done. He cites teacher absenteeism and turnover related to unaddressed student trauma – arguing that those costs are higher than the cost of training staff and providing more mental-health counseling.

In Compton, some teachers have become ad hoc counselors in the wake of trauma. But without training for that, the cumulative effect can be that teachers experience vicarious trauma, the lawsuit alleges. Three teachers have joined the five students named in the class-action suit.

One of them is Rodney Curry, a longtime teacher at Dominguez High who has lost dozens of students to violence. At times, he has come close to leaving teaching because of the emotional pain, the lawsuit says, and he is frustrated that students are often suspended or expelled when he believes what they really need is mental-health support.

The biographies of the student plaintiffs recount one extreme hardship after another. Instead of having their emotional needs attended to, the lawsuit argues, they were neglected and punished by their school system in ways that may seriously jeopardize their futures.

“It’s like they are being treated as disposable children,” Rosenbaum says. But what’s promising is that even students who have dealt with multiple traumas “are remarkably resilient,” he adds. “They really want to learn.”

Take Kimberly Cervantes, an 18-year-old plaintiff who aspires to earn a university degree and be a poet.

As a middle-schooler, Ms. Cervantes witnessed the deaths of two students. As a junior in high school, she confided in a classmate that she was insecure about being bisexual. Teachers told her in front of the class “how wrong it was for me to be gay,” she says in a phone interview. “When a classmate tells you it’s wrong to be gay, it’s not really offensive, but when an older person, a teacher, says it to you, it just really hurts.... After that, I didn’t want to go to school anymore.”

She was struggling with suicidal thoughts, and although her parents alerted school officials, she says she received no counseling. She had received some free counseling as a middle-schooler, but was told at the start of high school that she had used up her allotment of free services, she says.

“I felt deserted,” she says. “I was failing a lot of my classes because I would miss a lot of assignments.” She had loved English class, so to be failing that especially hurt.

During her senior year, Cervantes says she was injured by a security guard at her school, according to the lawsuit. She was transferred to one of California’s continuation schools (alternative schools), where she is not able to take the kind of course load that will enable her to go directly to a four-year university. Recently, she was sexually assaulted on a public bus on her way home from school, the lawsuit says, and she again missed multiple days of school.

She has had some caring teachers, she says, particularly a health teacher who noticed she didn’t look well. Upon hearing that she hadn’t eaten in three days, he insisted that she eat his lunch and check in with him every day.

She says she joined the lawsuit because she has three younger brothers in the school system and she wants it to improve for them. “I would really like for the teachers to have some training on how to talk to students ... or how to just be a better teacher in general.”

Poetry has helped her cope, Cervantes says, and at the end of the interview, she shared a poem she wrote called “My Best Friend.” Part of it reads: “I’ve known her forever, but we don’t always get along. She has a brave heart and she’s also really strong.... She knows all my faces, from happy to sad, excited, amazed, angry, and glad. She knows all my birthmarks and every scar on my knee. Will it upset you to know that my best friend is me?”

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