On Monday, a one-of-a-kind, and potentially important lawsuit was filed by the public interest law firm, Public Counsel, and by Irell & Manella LLP, in behalf of five student plaintiffs plus three teachers, alleging that the teenagers named, and others with similar experiences who attended schools in the Compton district, “have been denied meaningful access to public education” as a result of the district’s “practices and policies that fail to accommodate the effects of complex trauma.”
“These policies and practices,” the lawsuit alleges, are against federal law and “perpetuate and sometimes create trauma on their own.”
The idea that childhood trauma really, no kidding, affects a kid’s ability to learn, or to sit still in a classroom, to focus on a test, or to respond constructively to criticism by a teacher, or react with moderation to a challenge or bullying by another student, are still only at the barest edge of mainstream acceptance, never mind that, for some years, we’ve had the scientific ability to observe the physical changes that occur in a kid’s brain in response to severe or sustained childhood trauma. Most of our public systems don’t behave as if we know what we know.
The purpose of this lawsuit is to change all that by forcing the hand of at least one school district—namely Compton—and, in so doing, setting a legal precedent that could trigger more change across the county, the state and beyond.
“NUMBER ONE HEALTH PROBLEM”
At a mid morning video conference, four of the plaintiff kids told their stories, (see video above) after which attorneys Mark Rosenbaum, Laura Faer and Katheryn Eidmann, all from Public Counsel explained in more detail what they believed to be the importance of their legal filing
“The number one public health problem in the United States today is the affect of childhood trauma on students’ opportunity to learn.” said Rosenbaum, “The widely known, but little addessed scientific fact of life is that childhood trauma can negatively affect the capacity of any child to learn and to succeed in school.”
Nowhere, Rosenbaum said, is the school-derailing impact greater than in high violence neighborhoods and communities, “where children suffer frequent and severe traumatic episodes that are so stressful that they overwhelm a young persons ability to cope. Unadressed trauma is the enemy of the brain,” he said. All the experts have told us that the surest way to reduct the achievement gap in American between our have and have not communities, is to address childhood trauma in our public schools.”
But that, Rosenbaum and the other attorneys say, is what Compton, and many school districts around the state and the nation—have failed to do.
Rather than “taking reasonable steps to address the needs of students affected by trauma,” the suit claims that CUSD punished and/or excluded the kids who were suffering most in ways that made succeeding in school all but impossible, and all this happened at a time when the kids needed help the most.
One student-plaintiff, Peter P., had a history of being repeatedly abused and watching his junky mother and his siblings badly abused as well. Eventually he and his sibs were removed to the foster care system, where Peter P bounced in and out of homes, and witnessed a frightening amount of street violence. (You can read the details here.)
Peter P became homeless for two months in March and April 2015, when he was 17. During this period, he slept on the roof of the Dominguez High School cafeteria. When his roof sleeping was fully discovered, instead of being offered help or services, he was suspended.
“If we cannot address the causes of extreme childhood trauma,” said Rosenberg, “we can at least address its effects so that all children can learn and achieve their dreams. But schools like those in Compton, he said “too often treat their students as bad children, not students to whom bad things have happened.”
So what, specifically, does the lawsuit hope for in the way of changes?
The attorneys point out that there are “proven models” already adopted by some districts across the country, that have helped both students and teachers “become more resilient in the face of adversity and trauma.”
The models include:
• Adequate mental health and counseling service for the highest need students;
• Trauma-informed training and support for all educators and school staff;
• Teaching children skills to cope with their anxiety and emotions; and
• Implementing positive school discipline and restorative strategies that keep children in school and create a safe and welcoming environment.
“Schools that fail to address the impact of trauma on students are engaging in unlawful discrimination,” said Laura Faer, Public Counsel’s Statewide Education Rights Director. “Trauma is a top predictor of school suspensions, expulsions and school-based referrals to law enforcement. Schools that fail to meet their obligation to become trauma-informed frequently deny student’s meaningful access to education and impermissibly put them on a school to jailhouse track.”
We will keep you posted on the outcome.