Lawsuit says kids traumatized by violence have right to mental health services in school

Suit against school district in Compton seeks class-action status for students nationwide

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As a middle school student in the Compton Unified School District, Kimberly Cervantes, 18, witnessed the deaths of two students—and then she later suffered a sexual assault on a bus, according to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles.

Screenshot/traumaandlearning.org

California students and teachers filed a landmark lawsuit Monday arguing that kids traumatized by violence or other hardship have a basic right to school-based mental-health support that would  help them overcome barriers to learning.  

The suit against the Compton Unified School District invokes the Americans with Disabilities Act and seeks class-action status for children across the United States who suffer trauma similar to the experiences described by five students in the Compton district.

Compton is a city with its own school district nestled inside urban Los Angeles. The city is home to struggling working-class families, and has also long been known as a tough, dangerous community because of its high crime rate and violent gang rivalries.

Three teachers who instruct children in the Compton district are also plaintiffs in the suit. The teachers believe they require — and have been denied — appropriate  training to help troubled students cope with trauma so they can effectively concentrate and learn.  Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm, filed the suit in federal court in Los Angeles along with Los Angeles law firm Irell & Menella.

“If we had children in wheelchairs of course we would say that we have to build ramps,” said Mark Rosenbaum, directing attorney for Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under the Law project. “These kids need opportunity now. It’s an urgent matter. Trauma needs to be addressed so these kids have a fighting chance.”

When children who are suffering emotionally tune out of their lessons or create disturbances in class, Rosenbaum said, teachers need training to start asking kids “what’s happened to you” instead of “what’s wrong with you.”

District enrollment in Compton is 80 percent Latino and 19 percent African-American. Low graduation rates — and the risk of incarceration — among youth of color in high-poverty areas like Compton are often identified as a top concern for lawmakers, policy analysts and business people in California. 

“To close the achievement gap, we must deal with trauma,” Rosenbaum said.

In response to the allegations in the suit, Micah Ali, president of the Compton Unified School Board, issued a statement Monday both defending the district and admitting to its challenges.

 “We have not yet seen the lawsuit,” the statement said. “But any allegation that the district does not work hard to deal with consequences of childhood trauma on a daily basis is completely unfounded.”

Furthermore, the district’s statement said, officials “remain eager to work with any organizations or individuals who share our mission to provide our students with a 21st century education, one that especially addresses some of the severe disadvantages faced by our community’s youth. But like school districts across this state, especially those who serve working-class families, we are constantly challenged to find the resources to meet every identifiable need.”

On Monday, as the suit was unveiled, lawyers released videos of young plaintiffs discussing their experiences.  Those who are under 18 were hidden in shadows to protect their identities.   

A plaintiff identified as Peter P., who is 17, talked about the impact of years of witnessing violence in his home, being sexually abused, being placed in foster care and getting stabbed and ending up homeless.

He said for two months, he was homeless and used four old carpets to create a place to sleep on the roof of his high school in Compton. He was eventually discovered and allegedly suspended and told to stay away or police would get involved.

 “I have flashbacks of what has happened to me as a kid,” Peter P. said. “It either makes me mad, or makes me sad or just makes me want to put my head down or I just want to leave the classroom.  That’s why a lot of students do that. Because they’ve been through something and they don’t want to open their mouth.” 

The suit alleges that Peter P. is failing all but two classes currently, although he’s often showed promise academically. He has repeatedly missed classes “due to the complex trauma he has experienced,” according to the suit, but “no mental health or attendance counselor or other school official has intervened or inquired as to the cause of those absences.”

Instead, according to the suit, Peter P. has been repeatedly suspended for “disobedient, angry or aggressive behavior” and was transferred out of seven elementary and middle schools.

Another plaintiff, Kimberly Cervantes, is an 18-year-old senior at an alternative school she was transferred to because of difficulties at regular high school.

According to the suit, Cervantes said a teacher told her in front of an entire class that she “shouldn’t be gay.” She also witnessed the death of two students when she was in middle school and suffered a sexual assault on a bus, the suit says, which caused her to suffer breakdowns in class.   

Although the school is aware of the incident, “she has yet to receive mental-health services,” according to the suit.

Plaintiff Phillip W., who is 15, has also gone through a string of traumatic experiences, the suit alleges, including being hit in the knee by a ricocheting bullet in 2014; having police officers point guns at him while playing at night on a school basketball court and in a park; and witnessing a friend get shot in the head.

“Despite Phillip W.’s acute need for additional and more intensive support, no Compton Unified School District school has ever provided or referred him to mental-health services,” the suit alleges.

For some teachers, the suit also claims, “the overwhelming energy it takes to manage a class of students manifesting the consequences of unaddressed trauma without the appropriate resources or training leads to ‘burnout.’ “

The suit is demanding that Compton require district-wide training for teachers and programs to ensure mental-health support for students who need help coping with anxiety and emotional suffering.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs point to “trauma-sensitive” practices getting positive reviews in schools in Washington state, Massachusetts and parts of San Francisco. These include “restorative justice” practices that aid students in sorting out conflict and making amends if they cause disturbances.  

“The effectiveness of these practices has been proven in several academic studies,” the lawyers said in a press release. “Research shows that students who received trauma intervention received higher grades and experienced fewer behavioral problems than children who did not. Also, suspension rates at schools implementing trauma-informed practices frequently drop sharply.”

Rosenbaum said that if Compton Unified officials argue they cannot afford to pay for training or new programs, lawyers would help them fight to obtain financial resources from the state of California. 

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