Lawsuit questions district's handling of trauma

By: | July 16, 2015

A first-of-its kind class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of five students and three teachers against Compton USD in California alleges the district does not adequately address the impact of childhood trauma on learning.

A first-of-its kind class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of five students and three teachers against Compton USD in California alleges the district does not adequately address the impact of childhood trauma on learning.

The lawsuit says the students witnessed or experienced murder, sexual assault, homelessness and racism in their neighborhoods. As a result, students were often absent, performed poorly in school and disrupted classes. Instead of providing services to help these students when trauma caused them to act out, the district punished them with suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement, the lawsuit alleges.

The teachers expressed frustration at these discipline policies, and said they have attended dozens of students’ funerals due to area violence.

Compton’s poverty rate is twice the California average, and the murder rate is five times the national average. Students in Compton are disproportionately likely to suffer serious trauma, says Alisa Hartz, staff attorney at Opportunity Under Law—part of the pro bono law firm, Public Counsel, that filed the lawsuit in May.

“These students are dealing with a wide range of really horrible experiences,” Hartz says. “Schools are responsible for providing meaningful access to education. They need to take students as they find them.”

The lawsuit asks the district to implement schoolwide trauma-sensitive practices, including:

• Training all staff to understand and respond appropriately to students suffering from trauma • Teaching students the proper skills to cope with anxiety and emotions • Mental health support for students who have experienced severe trauma • Restorative justice discipline programs that focus less on suspensions and more on students making amends for disruptive behavior

The problem is not confined to Compton, Hartz says.

“The issues in Compton are not different from those in many districts within California and nationwide,” says Compton USD Board President Micah Ali. “We are always looking to work with anyone interested in the success and safety of Compton students. But the lawsuit hardly seems to be an effort to collaborate.”

Ali says the district has services in place for these students, and has increased the number of counselors and money set aside for disadvantaged youth in the past year. At press time, the district had not released a formal response to the lawsuit.

Impact learning

Legally, schools must identify and address the learning, behavioral and mental needs of students so all can access the curriculum, says Eric Rossen, director of professional development and standards at the National Association of School Psychologists and co-editor of the book Supporting and Educating Traumatized Students. However, tight budgets and a national shortage of school psychologists make it difficult to treat such students.

“Trauma can not only undermine students’ ability to learn, but also their ability to form relationships with peers and teachers, and to manage their feelings and behaviors,” he says. “All those things can severely impact the learning process.”

For some students, chronic trauma can lead to long-term structural changes in brain functioning, leading to trouble learning or regulating behavior. Students who have experienced trauma are not a homogenous group, Rossen says. Only some who experience adversity develop full-blown trauma that requires intensive services. One option to address the needs of all students is a multitiered system of supports, which offers a range of services that increase in intensity, he adds.

Identifying students

It is often difficult to identify students who have experienced trauma, Rossen says. No accurate tests have been developed, and students often won’t report trauma—particularly in low-income neighborhoods where families place less trust in police, schools and other public services, he adds.

Districts can screen for trauma by asking students about their exposure to adversity, violence or stress. “To expect that schools will somehow know what’s happening with every student is not reasonable,” Rossen says. “We need to create school environments that have good relationships with communities and families, and have counselors and psychologists in place who are able to ask the right questions.”