Lawsuits, Reforms Address Student Trauma and Schools


A never-before-seen class action suit is being brought against a Southern California school district and its top officials charging them with responsibility for trauma — and it could have a serious impact on schools nationwide.

Cory Turner of NPR reports that this week in Los Angeles a US District Court judge will hear the suit against the Compton Unified School District. Compton, a city just south of Los Angeles, has had a violent reputation for years, with a murder rate in 2014 that was over five times the national average. Now, several students are saying they have been traumatized by living in Compton and that Compton’s schools have not helped them in the way that they deserved.

The complaints include physical and sexual abuse, addicted parents, homelessness, and an ongoing fear of violence.

Fifteen-year-old Phillip W, says he saw his first murder at age 8.

“Somebody got shot in the back of the head with a shotgun,” the boy explains in a video on a website dedicated to the case. “And they threw him over the rail, and he was just sitting there bleeding, blood all down the sewer line. It was a horrifying sight.”

Phillip added that in 2014 he witnessed over 20 shootings and was hit himself by a bullet in the knee.

The brain’s ability to learn is profoundly affected by exposure to violence, according to Susan Ko of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

“That impacts concentration, the ability to just listen to what the teacher is saying, to understand what you’re reading, to remember something that you learned or what the teacher just said,” Ko says.

Traumatized students live in a state of alarm. The slightest bump or a teacher request can bring on anger or bad behavior. The suit alleges that in Compton schools, traumatized kids were more likely to be punished than to be helped. The suit says that trauma is a disability and special services should be available to students who are traumatized. This, say the plaintiffs, can begin to happen with teacher training, mental health support, and conflict-mediation.

The district’s attorney, David Huff, says these extras would have to be funded. He also believes the suit broadens the definition of disability and could send the wrong message to kids living in other struggling communities.

“A sweeping declaration would effectively tell these children that they have now been labeled as having a physical or mental handicap under federal law.”

The district has asked that the suit be dismissed.

In Jennings, Missouri, counselors at the town’s high school are analyzing the high percentage of students in the school who are experiencing traumatic events. Counselors, the Missouri Department of Mental Health officials, and district administrators are working on a new approach to education that would mitigate the effects of trauma. The Jennings School District is trying to create trauma-informed schools, places where officials move away from suspensions and toward looking for the root cause of the actions, reports Elisa Crouch of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“This is not a free pass,” Patsy Carter of the Missouri Department of Mental Health said to the counselors and district administrators sitting at three round tables. “But if we want their behavior to change we have to look at it through the lens of trauma and the impact.”

Superintendent Tiffany Anderson says the idea is to wrap services around the whole child so they can learn how to have better lives.

The CDC estimates that more than half of the US population has experienced at least one traumatic event during childhood, but children in high-poverty communities such as Jennings and Compton experience chronic trauma. Dealing with this kind of stress can cause a long list of health problems and even a shorter lifespan.

Over the next three years, Jennings is partnering with Washington University and the Pediatric Residency program at St. Louis Children’s Hospital to bring the approach into all Jennings schools. Funding comes through a grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Trauma-sensitive schools first evolved in Washington state, and now Missouri districts such as Kansas City and Independence are bringing the program on board.

“It’s a moral imperative that we address the entire child,” Monica Barnes-Boateng, assessment and data coordinator for Jennings, said during a break. “We can’t begin to help them with student learning outcomes until you address their personal needs.”

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