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Should schools be required to address students’ trauma? Unprecedented lawsuit says ‘yes.’

Should public schools be required to directly address the trauma that many students experience outside of class but that affects their academic performance? An unprecedented federal class-action lawsuit in California charges that the Compton Unified School District’s failure to do so violates the rights of staff and students — but the people behind the unique suit say that the issue is national, and the outcome could affect schools nationwide.

According to this story in L.A. School Report, five students and three teachers are plaintiffs in the suit.  It quotes Mark Rosenbaum, of Public Counsel, a public advocacy law firm, one of two firms that filed the suit, as saying during a webcast:

“The No. 1 one public health problem in the United States today is the affect of childhood trauma on students’ opportunity to learn. The widely known, but little addressed scientific fact of life is that childhood trauma can negatively effect the capacity of any child to learn and to succeed in school.”

The lawsuit — which is said to be the first of its kind in the country — speaks to a central problem with many federal and state school reform efforts: a focus on holding students, teacher and schools “accountable” through standardized test scores and less (if any at all) on the mental and physical conditions in which many students come to school every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide was the third leading cause of death for teens ages 15-19 in 2010 (after accidents and homicides) though public schools have inadequate (if any) resources to address the mental health of students.

The suit asks that the district, in Los Angeles County, be required to provide better mental health support for students, better training for staff in dealing with student trauma and for shifting emphasis on treating troubled students as “bad children” but as “children to whom bad things happen, Rosenbaum said. The suit (see text below) in part:

How young people react to trauma depends on the age of the child, the severity of the trauma, their proximity to it, and their individual coping mechanisms.  A child experiencing trauma or abuse develops strategies, which become coping mechanisms to enable day-to-day functioning, but medical science has made clear that cumulative exposure to trauma—particularly when it goes unaddressed—is likely to disable a child’s ability to learn. Trauma incapacitates by altering the physiology of a child’s developing brain, creating a neurobiological response that impairs the performance of daily activities, especially skills essential to receiving an education such as thinking, reading, concentrating, learning and regulating emotions.

In a story on the suit, the Christian Science Monitor quoted a statement from Micah Ali, president of Compton’s board of trustees:

“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.”

The Los Angeles Times quoted Compton Unified Superintendent Darin Brawley in this article as saying he could not comment on the lawsuit. He also said:

“We take very seriously all allegations regarding the quality of education of our students. The district is committed to providing a quality education to all students and will continue to do so.”

A Website called Trauma & Learning explains why the suit was filed in Compton. It says in part:

Compton is among the most socioeconomically distressed cities in Southern California, and it experiences attendant high rates of violent crime:
Indeed, the appropriate question in a Compton classroom is not “Have you ever experienced a traumatic event?” but rather, “What traumatic events have you experienced?” Thus, large numbers of Compton Unified students are likely to benefit from the trauma-sensitive approach sought by this class action.

The Web site includes stories of the plaintiffs, including this one:

Plaintiff Philip W. is fifteen years old and currently attends Team Builders, an alternative high school in CUSD. Philip W. has repeatedly experienced traumatic violence and loss. When Philip W. was eight years old, a bullet went through the rear window of his mother’s car when he was sitting in the back seat; Philip W. believes he would have been killed if he had been sitting up higher in his seat. Philip W. also first witnessed someone shot and killed when he was eight years old. After witnessing that first shooting, Philip W. cried and threw up. He estimates that he has since witnessed more than twenty further shootings. He has had guns fired at him on more than one occasion, and has been caught in crossfire approximately eight times. In 2014, Philip W. was hit in the knee by a ricocheting bullet. Also during 2014, Philip W. was chased and shot at by the police when he and his friends were playing basketball on the court of his old elementary school campus in the evening. On another occasion, when Philip W. was playing tag with friends in a Compton park, a police officer pointed a gun at him and told him to freeze until the officer realized that he had mistaken Philip W. for someone else.
In the past year, Philip W. has experienced the deaths of two close friends—one of whom he witnessed get shot in the head last September. He also lost a close family member to cancer.
In school, Philip W. has difficulty focusing, concentrating, and recalling information. Philip W. feels sad and angry much of the time. Philip W. says, “When I was about 12, I felt a click in my head and something changed. I used to be happy and joyful, but now I can’t be happy. I have to be serious and ready for anything.” Philip W. says that his main goal is “to make it past twenty-five.” He frequently jokes around during school to distract himself from these feelings.

Here’s the lawsuit: