Lawsuit against Compton USD aims at how schools deal with trauma
Craig Clough | May 18, 2015
A new federal class action lawsuit accuses the Compton Unified School District of failing to adequately address the issue of childhood trauma in its schools, a violation of the federal rights of its students and staff.
The lawsuit was filed by Public Counsel, a public advocacy law firm, and the private firm, Irell & Manella LLP. Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law, said in a webcast with reporters that the lawsuit could have been filed “just as easily” in other communities around California or the nation.
With five students and three teachers as plaintiffs, it draws attention to widespread problems across school districts by calling for better training of Compton district staff in how to deal with students who have suffered trauma and for more help for students through a greater emphasis on restorative justice techniques and increased mental health support.
“The No. 1 one public health problem in the United States today is the affect of childhood trauma on students’ opportunity to learn,” Rosenbaum said. “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.”
Rosenbaum added that schools often treat children who have suffered trauma “as bad children, not children to whom bad things happen.”
Numerous studies have documented the negative impact that trauma has on a child’s ability to learn, but Compton Unified violated several federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, by falling to address students’ needs and the needs of the district’s staff, the lawsuit alleges.
“If we had children who were in wheelchairs, we would say that schools, of course, needed to build ramps in order for the children to get inside the schoolhouse. This is the same thing,” Rosenbaum said.
Compton was chosen because it is one of the most socioeconomically distressed cities in Southern California and experiences high rates of violent crime, Public Counsel said on a website about the lawsuit, traumaandlearning.org.
The explanation for the lawsuit does not suggest that Compton Unified is particularly deficient in providing mental health trauma support to students and staff compared with similar districts, as lawyers said, explaining that the real purpose of the case is to win a ruling that could impact federal law and potentially all schools in the country.
The lawsuit also has teacher plaintiffs because of the “vicarious trauma” many teachers suffer by working with troubled students, Rosenbaum said.
During the webcast, a video was shown that featured some of the plaintiffs, including several whose identities were withheld because they are minors. One of them, identified only as Virgil, claimed he was homeless and living on the roof of his school for several months in response to a childhood filled with exposure to violence and trauma. When it was discovered he was living on the roof, instead of offering him help, the school suspended him.
“I want to figure out a way for the teachers to understand the students,” Virgil said.