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Schools Legally Obligated to Address Effects of Trauma on Students, Suit Says

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Five students and three teachers filed a lawsuit against the Compton Unified School District, its board, and Superintendent Darin Brawley, alleging that the school system violates students' federally protected access to a free and appropriate public education by failing to provide "reasonable accommodations" to help them deal with the effects of trauma in the classroom. The suit, filed in federal court, seeks class-action status.

Plaintiffs claim Compton schools violated federal laws including the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Prolonged exposure to trauma results in injuries to the developing minds of children," said Mark Rosenbaum, directing attorney for Public Counsel's Opportunity Under Law project, which filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs. "It's the type of roadblock to learning that our federal anti-discrimination laws were created to address, so that students in these circumstances are not denied equal opportunity to public education."

Students' Stories

Stories of student plaintiffs included in the lawsuit detail stories of exposure to domestic violence, murder, sexual assault, homelessness, and racism. As a result of resulting trauma, students were unable to focus in class, saw an increase in absences, and exhibited aggressive or disruptive behaviors, the suit says. Compton schools, south of downtown Los Angeles, responded to those behaviors through exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions, and it failed to provide necessary mental health supports to help students deal with the effects of trauma, the suit says.

Teacher plaintiffs say the school system did not adequately train them to work with students who've faced significant, often ongoing, trauma outside of school. Some complained of secondhand effects from working with such students.

The suit draws on a growing body of research about adverse childhood experiences. My colleague Sarah Sparks wrote about how Washington state schools attempts to address childhood stress and the research behind those efforts in 2013.

"Researchers have found that chronic, sustained stress, such as that caused by neglect, abuse, or deprivation, elevates stress hormones in the brain and weakens the neural foundation of executive-function skills in early childhood," she wrote. "That can cause the children to struggle in school and work, and in adulthood, make it harder to pass those skills on to their own children."

And exposure to multiple traumatic experiences correlates with drop-out and absentee rates and poor academic progress, researchers have found.

But, while researchers have formed a consensus that such experiences have significant effects on children, there are few highly evaluated, school-based approaches to addressing such concerns. I've heard researchers say schools that do use trauma-informed approaches are essentially building the plane in the air, or using research before evidence-based practices have been fully developed.

The plaintiffs are asking for trauma-sensitive training for school staff, the use of restorative practices to reduce exclusionary discipline, and increased mental health supports for students.

A New Protected Class?

I am curious about the suit's intent to blaze a new trail of rights for trauma-exposed children. No federal laws that I am aware of specifically lists these students as a protected class. And many concerns detailed in the lawsuit could be addressed through civil rights complaints under other federal laws. For example, several students complaining of exclusionary discipline related to trauma exposure have other federally recognized disabilities, which affords them certain protections in school discipline. Also, complaints about issues related to race and sexual orientation may be grounds for complaints under Title VI and Title IX.

When I asked attorneys for the plaintiffs about this, they said the suit isn't about the needs of individual students. Rather, it's about the collective, unmet needs of the district as a whole, the said.

"Where there are such high concentrations [of trauma-exposed students], the relief that is required is not one-by-one," Rosenbaum said.

I asked Compton schools to respond to the suit, and a spokesman said he is preparing a statement. I will update this post when I receive it.

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