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.