Although serious childhood trauma is generally recognized as being widespread in our culture and a severe detriment to student achievement, K-12 teachers receive little if any training in college or on the job on how to recognize and deal with it in the classroom.
That might change soon. Public Counsel, a pro-bono law firm, and Irell & Manella LLP filed a lawsuit (pdf) in U.S. District Court seeking recognition of the right to mental-health support in school. The suit was filed against Compton Unified School District in Los Angeles County but seeks class-action status on behalf of all students in the United States.
Many students in Compton have experienced multiple, repeated and sustained traumatic events. The Los Angeles Times’ Homicide Report lists it as the 17th most deadly area among what the newspaper considers L.A. County’s 270 neighborhoods. Over a recent six-month period, there were “470 officially reported violent crimes, defined as homicides, rapes, assaults and robbery.”
The tough, low-income, working-class town, surrounded by the city of Los Angeles, is known for gangs and gangsta rap. The lawsuit argues that “communities with the fewest resources” are most likely to have students “exposed to trauma and less likely to receive the interventions needed to cope with that trauma.”
The suit was joined by three teachers in the Compton school district who maintain they have been denied the training necessary to cope with students suffering from complex, multiple, sustained traumas, which are ever-present. “Incidents of shootings, beatings, robberies, and other violent acts take place in the neighborhoods where the Student Plaintiffs and their peers reside and attend school,” the suit says.
One of the student plaintiffs, Peter P., says he “was repeatedly physically and sexually abused by his mother’s boyfriends . . . watched as his best friend was shot and killed . . . was stabbed with a knife while trying to protect a friend” and “witnessed over 20 people being shot.”
The lawsuit alleges that Peter showed signs of having academic potential but skips school and is failing most of his classes, yet “no mental health or attendance counselor or other school official has intervened or inquired as to the cause of those absences.” As a result, he has cycled through seven elementary and middle schools.
Public Counsel attorney Mark Rosenbaum told the Times, “If you really want to do something about the achievement gap, childhood trauma is the place to start.”
The suit points out that students aren’t the only ones suffering from their lack of treatment for trauma. Teachers are stressed. The suit says, “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.’ “
Rosenbaum said that the cost of providing trauma counseling to students would be more than offset by addition government dollars, pegged to attendance, flowing to schools as truancy and dropout rates decline.
The lawsuit seeks better training for teachers, more counseling and support services, and less dependence on punitive disciplinary means to control disruptive behavior. It also seeks judicial recognition that complex trauma prevents students from receiving meaningful access to education, a basic constitutional right, and cannot be ignored.