Five Compton Unified School District high school students who described their lives as a tangle of poverty, violence and abuse, filed a federal class-action lawsuit Monday stating that the district is legally required to address the effects of chronic trauma on learning.
The lawsuit is believed to be the first in the nation to use special education law to argue for accommodations for students whose ability to concentrate and learn is impaired by the stress of repeated violence, abuse and neglect.
“Schools that fail to address the impact of trauma on students are engaging in unlawful discrimination,” said Laura Faer, statewide education rights director at Public Counsel, a Los Angeles public interest law firm, in a video press conference.
The suit, Peter P., et al. v. Compton Unified School District, was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, located in Los Angeles, by Public Counsel and Irell & Manella, a Los Angeles firm working pro bono.
“I want to figure out a way for the teachers to understand the students,” said Peter, 17, a student at Dominguez High School and the lead plaintiff in the case, in a videotaped statement. Because he is under 18, the lawsuit identified him only by his first name. According to Public Counsel and Irell & Manella, Peter grew up with physical and sexual abuse, lived in foster homes, and has witnessed more than 20 people get shot. In March and April, he slept on the roof of the high school because he was homeless. When he was discovered, he was suspended.
In the video, he explained to teachers why some students put their heads down on their desks and don’t want to participate. “They’re trying to change, but they can’t,” he said. “Because when they go home, it’s negative. They go to school, it’s negative. Out on the streets, it’s negative.”
He added, “I would love to see my school as my peaceful place where I could be feeling safe, calm.”
The lawsuit claims that Compton Unified violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires schools to provide services to meet the needs of students with physical or mental impairments. Compton Unified failed to take “reasonable steps” to address the needs of students affected by trauma and instead frequently suspended or expelled students suffering from severe trauma, the lawsuit claimed.
“Schools that fail to address the impact of trauma on students are engaging in unlawful discrimination,” said Laura Faer, statewide education rights director at Public Counsel.
Micah Ali, president of the board of trustees of Compton Unified, refuted the charge that the district was shirking its duty to disadvantaged students. “Any allegation that the district does not work hard to deal with consequences of childhood trauma on a daily basis is completely unfounded,” Ali said in a statement.
“But like school districts across this state,” he said, “especially those who serve working class families, we are constantly challenged to find the resources to meet every identifiable need.”
Brain scans of traumatized youth have found that the neural pathways associated with fear and survival responses are strongly developed, leaving some children in a state of hyper-vigilance that causes them to overreact, recent research shows. And because they are in a constant state of fear, students affected by trauma find it difficult to relax enough to process verbal instructions and learn.
The suit seeks a district-wide infusion of teacher support and education about trauma, mental health counseling and the use of “restorative practices,” which replace punitive discipline with a system that allows students to restore relationships by making amends. In addition, the suit seeks training for teachers in how to teach students social and emotional skills, such as courtesy and conflict resolution. Withholding such services denies traumatized students meaningful access to education, Faer said.
Three Compton Unified teachers joined the lawsuit because they are personally stressed by the traumas their students experience – an effect known as “secondary trauma” or “vicarious trauma” – and because they want more training and support, the lawsuit said.
Plaintiff Rodney Curry, a Dominguez High School teacher for 19 years who attended Dominguez High himself, said he has lost dozens of students to violence and attends one to three funerals a year for current and former students.
“Yet he has never received training on trauma or mental health,” according to a statement from Public Counsel and Irell & Manella, “nor has he been informed or made aware of any system for referring students that need mental health services to a program outside of school.”
He has actively considered leaving the teaching profession, but stays on because of the role he plays for some students, the statement said.
“Trauma-informed” or “trauma-sensitive” schools educate administrators, teachers and staff about how trauma affects the brain. The trainings seek to reframe a teacher’s interaction with a disruptive student by acknowledging that the student may be experiencing acute stress.
Instead of asking “What’s wrong with you?” school staff could ask “What has happened to you?” according to Joyce Dorado, associate professor at the UCSF School of Medicine and director of the UCSF Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools program, known as HEARTS. The program is used in some San Francisco schools.
Restorative approaches to discipline have been shown to increase attendance, reduce suspensions and expulsions and improve academic performance, the lawsuit noted, citing reports. And creating a positive school environment, where students feel emotionally and academically supported, has been shown to boost test scores.
“If we in society can’t eliminate causes of trauma, which are attributable in whole or in part to poverty, we can address its effects,” said Mark Rosenbaum, a directing attorney for Public Counsel.
“I’m not going to say it’s too hard growing up in Compton, but it’s real difficult – it’s a bumpy ride,” said plaintiff Philip, 15, in his own videotaped statement. “Are you going to be shot, robbed, killed – that’s what it comes down to.” He attends Team Builders, an alternative high school in the district and wants to study photography.
Plaintiff Kimberly Cervantes, now 18 and a senior at Cesar Chavez Continuation School in the Compton district, witnessed the deaths of two students in middle school. In high school, she was chastised by two teachers, in front of the class, for saying she thought she might be gay. She stopped attending the class, and school, for a long time, and felt suicidal. She had used up her no-cost sessions of counseling, she said, and her family was unable to pay for more sessions.
In her videotaped statement, she said she wants to succeed. “I love English – I love writing,” she said. “I want to be a poet.”