Trauma Should Be Recognized as Disability by Schools, Lawsuit Says

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“You have to address trauma in order to do anything about the achievement gap,” said Anne Hudson-Price, an attorney with Public Counsel who represents the students. Photo: Thinkstock

A group of middle and high school students in Compton have filed a first-of-its-kind federal lawsuit saying violence at home and in their neighborhoods has impaired their ability to learn at school. The students, along with three teachers who are also plaintiffs, allege the Compton Unified School District has failed to recognize and address their trauma-induced disabilities, and therefore has denied their legal right to an equal education.

Lead plaintiff Peter P. (not his real name) was raped by an abusive stepfather, who also beat his siblings and his mom.

“We’d go to school with black eyes and busted teeth,” he said.

Peter’s neighborhood was as dangerous as his home. He was once mistaken for his older brother and shot in the street, and said he’s has witnessed his friends and others being shot.

“If you’re surrounded in an area that’s gang-affiliated, you go to school having to watch your back all the time,” Peter said. “You’re already scared senseless. That’s what affects studying.”

Peter said he has excelled in school at times, but often he’s been too preoccupied to focus. His rage led to a slew of suspensions and expulsions.

Other plaintiffs reported witnessing repeated shootings and being shot at themselves. One boy was mistaken for someone else, arrested at gunpoint and handcuffed at his elementary school when he was a sixth grader. Another watched his father point a gun at his mother, while a young woman said she’d been sexually assaulted on a public bus on her way home from school.

“You have to address trauma in order to do anything about the achievement gap,” said Anne Hudson-Price, an attorney with Public Counsel who represents the students.

Learning requires a state of attentive calm, Hudson-Price and her colleagues note in court papers. But it’s one that traumatized kids rarely if ever achieve.

Last September, District Judge Michael Fitzgerald allowed the case to move forward, ruling that the students could be entitled to accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, just as learning disabled students are.

If the plaintiffs prevail, they could pave the way for large-scale changes in school policies nationwide.

The lawsuit seeks consistent mental health support for students, as well as training and coaching for teachers to understand trauma and respond appropriately. The plaintiffs want to end punitive discipline like suspensions and expulsions, which they allege are counter-productive because they push traumatized kids out of school and into the criminal justice system.

Peter argued that throughout his school career, Compton school district teachers and administrators knew of the issues that caused him to act out and do poorly in school, but offered no help, even last year when he was homeless. He lived openly on the roof of the cafeteria at Dominguez High School for two months.

Hudson-Price said the plaintiffs are not asking for screening of individual children. Instead, they demand that the district establish so-called trauma-informed policies for all of its 26,000 students because so many of them are affected.

More than half of the district’s students have experienced at least one traumatic event, based on an analysis of self-reported data by Christina Bethell, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University who directs the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative.

Homicide rates in Compton are five times the national average. A significant number of the districts students are homeless or in foster care and many are poor. Ninety three percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced price lunches.

“To me, it’s a civil rights issue,” said Marleen Wong, an associate dean and professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work, who’s filed a declaration in support of the lawsuit.

Compton school officials declined interview requests. But, District Superintendent Darin Brawley said in a written statement that school officials believe the lawsuit targets Compton for its “name recognition and publicity value.”

In court papers, Compton Unified School District officials contend that trauma isn’t a disability. They argue that attaching the stigma of disability to kids because they come from poor, high crime neighborhoods would be devastating. What’s more, they say students’ bad behavior could be the result of immaturity or bad judgment, not the trauma they might have suffered. Still, they contend that the district is sensitive to trauma, citing trainings for teachers and school staff. An item posted last month on the district website highlights increased counseling services for students through a partnership with a local non-profit.

Underpinning the plaintiffs’ case is relatively new research that shows repeated exposure to trauma causes both long-term and immediate damage to developing brains and bodies.

The 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences study, conducted by researchers at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that traumatic childhood experiences, like abuse or neglect, or living with alcoholic, drug-addicted or mentally ill parents raised the risk of physical and mental health issues in later life. The more trauma a person experienced in childhood, the more likely she was to suffer health consequences like cancer, addiction or obesity as an adult.

But repeated trauma also affects children profoundly during their earliest years, because of the plasticity of their brains, writes Joyce Dorado, a psychologist and professor at the University of California San Francisco in her declaration supporting the lawsuit.

When the brain’s basic survival mechanisms of fight or flight or freeze and surrender are triggered again and again, the limbic system, which controls those responses is overdeveloped and the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for clear thinking and concentration is stunted.

The result, according to scientists, is that the brains of traumatized children are essentially re-wired so that the smallest upset can cause them to lash out in anger in a fight or flight state or to withdraw, removing themselves psychologically from a situation. Thus, traumatized kids can’t learn as well as those whose brains have developed in calmer circumstances.

Students in Washington state who reported three or more adverse childhood experiences were four times more likely to fail in school and six times more likely to have serious behavior problems, according to a 2015 study by researchers at Washington State University.

The good news is that trauma is treatable, Wong said.

She and her colleagues published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2003 that showed that students in South and East Los Angeles who reported PTSD saw their symptoms ease after just 10 weeks of group therapy.

Now, a handful of schools and school districts around the country, including some in Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego have gone farther, incorporating therapy, teacher training and restorative discipline policies to create trauma-informed campuses.

In San Francisco, the UCSF Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools or HEARTS establishes prevention programs to help kids deal with trauma and intervention efforts for kids who are at-risk or suffer from post-traumatic stress. In addition to training for teachers and parents, the program provides support for teachers who may suffer from stress and burnout because of their work with troubled kids. Additionally, HEARTS has worked with schools and district-wide to create alternatives to punitive discipline like suspensions from school.

After five years in one school, Dorado said she’s seen an 86 percent decrease in physical aggression, a 95 percent decrease in suspensions, and an 87 percent decrease in referrals to the office.

Such transformations take three to five years, Dorado said.

“It would be misguided to think it happens quickly. If you think one year is enough, no. That flies in the face of what we’ve learned from organizational change research.”

There is no still no data on whether trauma-informed programs have improved students’ academic performance, Dorado said.

The HEARTS program has received a number of grants for its work, including one that contributed about $90,000 per year. But Dorado said she and others are creating a model for trauma informed schools that administrators can replicate at a more sustainable cost of about $50,000 or $60,000 annually, or what a principal might spend to hire a reading specialist or other support staff.

The students’ lawsuit is set for a hearing next January. Hudson-Price said that the two sides have engaged in mediation, which was recommended by the judge, but she declined to elaborate.

Lead plaintiff Peter P said that he thinks the problem in Compton is that adults have simply ignored the problems of kids in need.

“How can you not tell a kid is worried? How can you not see it. You have to ask what’s going on?”

Meanwhile, Peter has left the Compton school district for his senior year, and hopes to attend a community college next year.

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