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Many LA students suffer childhood trauma impacting learning, advocates say



Childhood trauma such as abuse and neglect is widespread among Los Angeles students, negatively impacting their learning.
Childhood trauma such as abuse and neglect is widespread among Los Angeles students, negatively impacting their learning.
Tom Woodward/Flickr Creative Commons

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Almost 14 percent of Los Angeles County residents report multiple instances of abuse, neglect or other negative experiences as children, impacting their ability to do well in school, according to a data report released Wednesday.

"It's a public health crisis," said Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, an organization advocating for services to address trauma suffered by children.

"This is not just a small percentage of the population – that it's happening in limited neighborhoods – but this is really all of us, and that's going to require system change," she said.

The report builds on a growing body of research showing trauma and chronic stress can change the chemical and physical structures of the brain, making it difficult for some students to learn.

Despite academic implications, the investment in mental health services provided in schools has fallen. 

Los Angeles Unified's budget for psychiatric social workers, who typically provide counseling for depression, anxiety and other illnesses, dipped 15 percent for some students this school year. 

A recent survey at four L.A. Unified schools found about 40 percent of students reported they’d experienced symptoms at levels the counselors found required treatment.

Authors of the Center for Youth Wellness' new report, "A Hidden Crisis," crunched California Department of Public Health data from 27,745 adults and spanning several years. 

They found one in six Californians have four or more adverse childhood experiences, the level at which health, mental health and behavior issues are often present.  

Other research shows this population is 27 percent less likely to graduate from college.

Burke Harris said  her clinic found these students are 32 times as likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability.

"They didn't have ADHD. Really they were showing results of toxic stress as a result of the adversity they had experienced," she said.

Burke Harris encouraged schools to rethink how they respond to behavior problems and to increase students' access to counseling.