Peter P., et al. v. Compton Unified School District, et al.
1. What is childhood trauma? How common is it?
Complex childhood trauma is the term development experts use to describe experiences that are so stressful they overwhelm a young person’s ability to cope. Research shows that traumatic experiences can physically alter developing brains and affect behavior for decades. Examples of traumatic experiences include (partial list):
Being the victim of physical or sexual violence;
Witnessing violence in your family or neighborhood;
Living with someone with a drug or alcohol problem;
Experiencing extreme family hardship and disruption, such as the death or incarceration of a parent; and
Living in poverty without reliable housing or food sources.
Childhood trauma is experienced by far too many children in the U.S. According to a study published in the journal Health Affairs, 48% of children have experienced at least one kind of trauma. Twenty-three percent have experienced two or more. Children in underserved communities are particularly likely to have experienced trauma.
2. How does trauma affect academic success?
Childhood trauma negatively affects a student’s ability to succeed in school. According to published research, children who have suffered three or more traumatic experiences are:
Two-and-half times more likely to repeat a grade than are children who have experienced none;
Five times more likely to have severe attendance issues;
Six times more likely to experience behavioral problems; and
More than twice as likely to be suspended from school.
Fortunately, the effects of childhood trauma can be mitigated and even reversed. Interventions that draw on the resilience of young people have been shown to be highly effective. The class action filed this week calls upon the Compton Unified School District to adopt these proven practices.
3. How well-established is the research base on the lasting effects of childhood trauma?
The research is very well established and widely accepted. The most important study of this issue is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. It involved more than 17,000 young people and has produced more than 50 published articles. The ACEs study is described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.” It established clearly that traumatic experiences in childhood are major risk factors for injury and death, as well as poor quality of life.
Recognizing the importance of trauma as a children’s health issue, the American Academy of Pediatrics last year announced the formation of the Center on Healthy, Resilient Children. The new center coordinates a national effort to prevent and treat toxic stress among children.
4. Why is this a legal issue? What laws have been broken?
By ignoring the needs of students affected by trauma, the Compton Unified School District has violated several federal laws and regulations, including the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
By law, children have the right to a “free and appropriate public education.” By failing to address the special needs of children affected by trauma, the Compton Unified School District has denied students their right to an appropriate education. This class action suit seeks relief on behalf of students in Compton who are suffering from the effects of severe trauma.
5. Who are the plaintiffs in this case?
The plaintiffs in this case are five students and three teachers in the Compton Unified School District. With the exception of Kimberly Cervantes, who is 18, the students' real names are not being published to protect their privacy. All the student-plaintiffs have experienced severe trauma in their lives. However, the school district’s response to their plight not only didn’t help, but frequently made their situations worse.
One student-plaintiff, a former foster youth with a history of being physically and sexually abused, became homeless this year. With nowhere else to turn, he slept on the roof of the high school he attended. At no time did school administrators provide any support or services. Instead, he was suspended. Although some personnel were aware of the student's circumstances, the student’s attempts to return to school were denied, and he was threatened with law enforcement involvement if he persisted in attempting to return.
Another student-plaintiff with a history of experiencing violence and witnessing friends and neighbors being shot had difficulty focusing and controlling his anger in school. Rather than offering support, the school district expelled him from all three mainstream high schools in CUSD in a single school year.
The teacher-plaintiffs are participating in the suit because they feel that teachers in CUSD have not been given the tools and support they need to assist children experiencing severe trauma appropriately. This leads to burnout and vicarious trauma among teachers. They are also joining the case because they want to ensure that students receive the assistance that they need and are entitled to under law.
6. Why was this case filed in Compton?
Students in Compton are disproportionately likely to suffer serious trauma. Compton’s poverty rate is twice the California average, its murder rate is five times the national average, and the city is home to a disproportionate share of foster youth. Large numbers of Compton Unified students are likely to benefit from the trauma-informed approach sought by this class action.
7. Why file a federal lawsuit over events in a single school district?
The laws that were violated are federal laws, so seeking relief in the federal courts is the appropriate remedy. We also hope this case will stimulate a nationwide movement bringing trauma-sensitive practices to schools across the country.
The research shows clearly that childhood trauma is a national problem. This class action makes a national statement that schools must play a critical role in helping children heal. In addition, we hope it sets a national precedent that children have the legal right to such school-based restorative services. Without this critical support, children may suffer the negative impacts of trauma for the rest of their lives.
8. What remedies are the plaintiffs seeking?
The class action encourages the Compton Unified School District to implement school-wide trauma-sensitive practices. Trauma-sensitive practices generally include:
Training for all staff to understand and respond appropriately to students suffering from trauma;
Teaching children skills to cope with their anxiety and emotions;
Mental health support for students who have experienced severe trauma; and
School discipline approaches that focus on preventing classroom disruptions and reducing suspension rates while holding students accountable for their conduct.
Importantly, school-wide trauma-sensitive practices must target the entire school environment. No single intervention is sufficient to provide the support that students suffering from the effects of trauma need.
9. Do trauma-sensitive practices work? What results can be expected?
Among experts, there is widespread consensus that trauma-sensitive school practices help children recover from the effects of trauma and succeed in school. The effectiveness of these practices has been proven in several academic studies. 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.[e.g. UCSF HEARTS Program]
Trauma-sensitive practices are currently being used extensively in Washington state, Massachusetts, and parts of San Francisco.