Education

Compton school district lawsuit equating trauma with disabilities proceeds

FILE: A lawsuit is moving ahead against Compton Unified School District filed by students who say the schools failed to help them deal with their trauma so that they can learn.
FILE: A lawsuit is moving ahead against Compton Unified School District filed by students who say the schools failed to help them deal with their trauma so that they can learn.
Rina Palta/KPCC

A judge ruled Wednesday that a lawsuit can proceed against the Compton school district that is the target of claims it failed to help students who experienced trauma in their lives, preventing them from learning.

A group of students and teachers sued the district in May alleging the district did not address the effects from their traumatic experiences, such as witnessing violence, which they equated to an impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Federal Judge Michael Fitzgerald denied the district's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The district earlier rejected the claims that it failed to address the students' trauma. 

The suit, filed by the legal advocacy group Public Counsel and Irell & Manella LLP law firm, seeks to require the district to implement services and accommodations to deal with the trauma so that students can get on with learning.

Teachers who are among the plaintiffs contend they are affected, too, because they must manage students who have unaddressed trauma without having the resources or training.

“This historic and life-changing decision recognizes that children who suffer the disabling affects of complex trauma resulting from exposure to violence, racism, extreme poverty, and other adverse childhood experiences are entitled to equal access to education and the provision of appropriate services,” said Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel in a statement.

The plaintiffs argued that childhood trauma leads to symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by war veterans, leading to low literacy, dropping out and other academic impacts.

David Huff, the Compton school district attorney in the case, said through a spokesman that the judge ruled "just because a child lives in Compton doesn't mean they are disabled by trauma."

"What is regrettable is that the folks who filed this suit didn't sit down and talk with the school district first. It would have found that the District, as you would expect, has identified this issue as something critical to its mission of student success and student safety and has been addressing it. It also would have saved money spent pursuing this matter in the courts. There was an opportunity for collaboration instead of confrontation. I'm sorry they didn't recognize that," Huff said.

This story has been updated.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to the suit as a class-action lawsuit. The judge in the case rejected that notion without prejudice, according to Public Counsel's Mark Rosenbaum, meaning the plaintiffs can make a case later that theirs is a class-action complaint. KPCC regrets the error.