Traumatized Students Sue Compton Schools

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – The Compton school district fails to meet the needs of students who suffer “complex trauma” from living with violence, abuse and poverty, parents, teachers and children say in a federal class action.
     Five students so traumatized by their lives they say they are legally disabled are joined as plaintiffs by their guardians and Compton teachers who say they have lost “dozens of students to violence and attended their funerals.”
     They claim Compton Unified School District violates the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and federal regulations on public education.
     “Schools are obliged under the Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act to accommodate students who are being denied benefits of educational programs solely by reason of experiencing complex trauma,” the 50-page lawsuit states.
     It recapitulates problems Compton children face, including exposure to violence and loss, deportations and incarceration of family members, living with someone with a drug or alcohol problem, systemic racism and discrimination, and the stress from lacking basic necessities such as food and shelter.
     Such overwhelming deprivation can create “complex trauma:” a concatenation of stresses so powerful they overwhelm a young person’s ability to cope, according to the complaint.
     Citing a wide range of research, the plaintiffs say childhood trauma blocks academic success for millions of children, leading to low literacy, high dropout rates, repeating grades, and low overall achievement.
     The trauma must be dealt with to close the achievement gap, said Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney with Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm that filed the lawsuit along with Irell & Manella.
     “Prolonged exposure to trauma results in injuries to the developing minds of children,” Rosenbaum said. “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 public education.
     “There is no greater enemy to learning than unaddressed trauma.”
     Research shows that traumatic experiences can physically alter the developing brains and bodies of children, which can affect their behavior for decades and lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and major depression.
     But rather then taking reasonable steps to address the needs of traumatized children, Compton Unified – which serves 26,000 students – has punished and excluded such students, leading to their academic failure, said Kathryn Eidmann, an attorney with Public Counsel.
     Punishing the students “sends a damaging message that students are responsible for the trauma they have endured and that their futures are disposable,” Eidmann said.
     Plaintiff Peter P., 17, was repeatedly physically and sexually abused by his mother’s boyfriends during the early years of his life and witnessed the abuse of his siblings and mother, the lawsuit states.
     He was placed in foster care after his mother, a drug addict, lost her parental rights. In middle school, Peter watched as his best friend was shot death. Last year Peter was stabbed when he tried to protect a friend whose relative was attacking her with a knife.
     Peter’s two older brothers are in jail and a man who served as a caretaker for Peter and his siblings when they entered the foster system is in prison for murder, the complaint states.
     Peter was homeless for two months this year and slept on the roof of the Dominguez High School cafeteria, for which he was suspended.
     “Although some personnel were aware of these circumstances, Peter P.’s attempts to return to school were denied, and he was threatened with law enforcement involvement if he persisted in attempting to return,” the complaint states.
     The trauma caused Peter, who has shown an ability to achieve high grades in honors classes, to suffer uncontrollable anger and to say he sometimes feels like he has a demon inside of him, according to the lawsuit.
     “Although he has repeatedly missed classes due to the complex trauma he has experienced, no mental health or attendance counselor or other school official has intervened or inquired as to the cause of these absences,” the complaint states. “CUSD has also repeatedly subjected Peter P. to harsh punitive discipline. Over the course of his academic career, he has been repeatedly suspended for disobedient, angry, or aggressive behavior, and has been involuntarily transferred” from seven CUSD schools.
     Another student identified in the complaint has witnessed more than 20 shootings, has been in the cross fire eight times, and has suffered the deaths of two friends in the past year – one of whom he saw get shot in the head, the lawsuit states.
     These experiences are far from unique among Compton Unified students because the district serves poor neighborhoods in which community violence is disproportionately high, the complaint states.
     The district operates 40 schools in the South Central Los Angeles County, including the city of Compton and parts of Carson and Los Angeles. Compton is among the most socioeconomically distressed cities in Southern California, with high rates of violent crime.
     Compton is known for the profusion of hip-hop artists who grew up there, many of whose songs glorify violence and drugs. But the reality for children is hardly glorious, according to the lawsuit.
     “CUSD is comprised of high numbers of foster and homeless youth, and nearly exclusively students of color who experience the expression and consequences of racism. Defendants are accordingly on notice that CUSD schools serve a disproportionately high number of students exposed to complex trauma. Concentrating many significantly trauma-impacted students in a school creates the highest level of need, necessitating the implementation of intensive systems of interventions,” the complaint states.
     The three Compton Unified teachers who joined the lawsuit say they devote endless hours and emotional resources addressing student trauma without the training or support necessary to do so.
     For some teachers, this leads to burnout. Others begin to take on the students’ trauma themselves and develop “secondary traumatic stress,” which can create serious health consequences, the lawsuit states.
     Dominguez High School teacher Rodney Curry, a plaintiff, says he “has lost dozens of students to violence and has attended their funerals. Even more of plaintiff Curry’s students have been shot of have witnessed or experienced traumatic violence but survived.”
     The students and teachers say the district needs to train staff to recognize and respond appropriately to student trauma, provide mental health services for students to cope with their conditions, and to move from punitive disciplinary practices to restorative strategies that keep children in school.
     “The failure of defendants to properly account for the disabling impact of complex trauma results in students with the greatest needs and vulnerabilities being effectively denied access to education,” the lawsuit states.
     Trauma-sensitive practices are being used in schools in Washington state, Massachusetts, and parts of San Francisco, according to the lawsuit.
     Research shows that students who received trauma intervention earned higher grades and suffered fewer behavioral problems than children who did not, and that suspension rates at schools with trauma-informed practices frequently drop sharply, according to the complaint.
     Officials with Compton Unified did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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