Nearly a year ago, pro-bono lawyers from Los Angeles-based Public Counsel made national headlines by launching a landmark class-action lawsuit against Compton Unified School District in federal court in Los Angeles, arguing that the district had failed to address issues of childhood trauma that prevented students from receiving a quality education.
In September, a federal judge agreed with arguments filed on behalf of five students and three teachers in the school district and declared that students who have experienced traumatic events could be considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Public Counsel’s lawsuit is the first to use disability law to argue that schools must provide accommodations and resources to assist students dealing with the impact of adverse childhood experiences like violence, abuse and neglect.
Now, the conflict could be nearing a resolution.
A deadline of Monday, June 13, has been set for the parties involved in the lawsuit to reach a settlement through negotiations. According to the terms laid out by a judge, trauma experts identified by Public Counsel are working with Compton Unified School District (CUSD) administrators to create a plan for the district.
However, if no accord is achieved and the parties do not agree to file an extension, the lawsuit will resume.
Annie Hudson-Price, a lawyer with Public Counsel who has participated in the case, says her team is optimistic that they can reach an agreement with CUSD that would put into place trauma-sensitive practices that will help staff understand some of the traumas experienced by students.
“The essential thing is that the school district is confronting the reality of trauma head on and doing something to address it with evidence-based practices that meet standards that experts in the field would approve of,” Hudson-Price said. “I can’t predict what will happen, but in terms of these kids, immediately, our goal is to get these kids services as soon as possible.”
One of those youth is Compton Unified student and plaintiff Peter P. As documented in pages of last year’s lawsuit, he spent more than a decade in the county’s child-welfare system, a victim of physical abuse who witnessed domestic violence and substance abuse at a young age.
Later, Peter witnessed more than 20 incidents of gun violence, including the death of his best friend during middle school. He was homeless for several months last year, including two months he spent sleeping on the roof of the Dominguez High School cafeteria. He was 17 when the lawsuit was filed last year.
Advocates say that the unaddressed anger and aggression from his traumatic past led to a litany of suspensions and expulsions — including seven different middle schools. Little effort, they say, was made to connect him with support or services, both desperately needed in a city where gun violence has recently surged and more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
When it comes to support and services, Compton Unified lags behind wealthier school districts. Hudson-Price says CUSD has 24 counselors and psychologists for nearly 25,000 students, a stark contrast with Beverly Hills High School, where nine counselors are appointed for 1,800 students.
A spokesperson for Compton Unified disputed allegations that the school district is doing little to help its students with mental health issues, noting a school-based health center at the Dominguez High School campus.
“We provide ongoing, specialized training for our staff and teachers and have partnered with several organizations to provide counseling and support services for these students and their families,” Communications Coordinator Ron Suazo wrote in a statement emailed to The Chronicle of Social Change. “There are few resources available to school districts to support these costs so we must make sacrifices to provide them.”
But Hudson-Price and other advocates say that it will take more than just more mental health services to make sure students like Peter P. excel in school.
“You can have all the mental health support you want, but if there’s not a whole-school approach that includes training and alternative disciplinary resources, then that student is going to leave that mental health session and go right back into that environment where they’re going to be re-traumatized or their trauma is not going to be understood,” she said. “They’re just going to be kicked out again.”
A “whole-school” approach is an emerging set of practices designed to address the effect of trauma in schools by looking at more than just counseling to help students. All teachers and staff are trained to recognize signs of trauma and adverse childhood experiences(ACEs). In creating an atmosphere where students can build better connections with adults and peers, a whole-school approach aims to build the social and emotional skills that will help students succeed in the classroom.
Lawyers from Public Counsel say that several efforts have demonstrated the success of trauma-sensitive practices in schools in recent years, including the Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools and the Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools program implemented in Los Angeles Unified School District.
Several experts are advising Public Counsel and Compton Unified on a pro-bono basis, including Christopher Blodgett, director of the Child and Family Research Unit at Washington State University.
Blodgett, who recently prepared a report for the Washington State legislature about the role of trauma in Washington schools, would not comment about the ongoing negotiations, but he did offer insight into how other schools serving large numbers of children with histories of trauma have addressed the issue.
Blodgett has long researched the impact of ACEs on learning. In one study, he found that a child with exposure to three or more ACEs was six times as likely to experience severe issues with school behavior and five times as likely to have serious attendance issues than those youth who have no reported ACEs.
“As the percent of adults in a community with high ACEs scores increases, the academic success of schools in that community goes down,” Blodgett said.
Through his Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resilience model, Blodgett has partnered with 34 schools in Oregon and Washington to create a school-wide approach to addressing childhood trauma.
He says that creating a lasting whole-school approach starts with teachers, administrators and staff.
“In doing this work, the approach we take is that this is about a shift in the practices among the adults in the building,” Blodgett said. “Our argument is you will get to issues and needs of individual children more effectively and more sustainably if the intervention is really for the adults who work with kids.
“In a school environment, the kids will move, but the adults will stay.”
Some teachers, he says, already understand how traumatic events can make learning more difficult.
“The easier conversation to get into with teachers is to start to talk about what happens when kids get overwhelmed by stress and become so agitated in your classroom that you’re scheduling your time managing behavior versus being able to actually do the instructional work you’re there to do,” Blodgett said. “From our perspective, the more important conversation is how do you support all the adults within the building, from the administration to bus drivers to crossing guards. How do you actually have them understanding enough about what trauma does that they have different tools in thinking about how they respond to trauma when kids struggle?”
In Compton, Public Counsel’s Hudson-Price says the school district should find a program that fits the unique needs of its student population. But she says the lawsuit also represents a campaign as well as a piece of litigation in the Southern California city.
“If we are able to implement some of these practices in Compton, then other school districts can see how effective they are,” she said. “We hope this creates a dialogue and collaboration.”