Lawyers reveal what Compton school trauma reforms may look like

Anne Hudson-Price (left) and Kathryn Eidmann are lawyers for Public Counsel who helped file a student trauma lawsuit against Compton Unified in 2015.
Anne Hudson-Price (left) and Kathryn Eidmann are lawyers for Public Counsel who helped file a student trauma lawsuit against Compton Unified in 2015.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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A year ago public interest lawyers in Los Angeles attracted national attention by arguing in a lawsuit against Compton schools that untreated trauma is a disability that keeps kids from learning and should be addressed by school public schools.

Those lawyers tell KPCC that Compton Unified officials have met with plaintiff’s lawyers and with others to settle the lawsuit.

“A team of national experts is working with a team from Compton Unified School District to help collaboratively develop a district wide program that would address the issues raised in the lawsuit,” said Kathryn Eidmann, a lawyer with Public Counsel who helped file the suit on behalf of a group of Compton students and teachers.

She said the team of more than half a dozen experts includes Christopher Blodgett, the director of the Child and Family Research Unit in Spokane, Washington; Joyce Dorado, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco; and USC Professor of Social Work Marlene Wong, who has helped carry out some trauma informed learning changes at LA Unified schools

These experts have created programs for schools with high proportions of kids with trauma. Those programs have placed mental health counselors at schools, given all school employees thorough training on the impact of trauma on kids, and have created policies that push school staff to ask what’s happening in a student’s life instead of defining disciplinary incidents as a problem that must be dealt with through consequences.

Plaintiffs' lawyers said the details of the settlement talks are confidential. The lawsuit is on hold until June 13 of this year, but Eidmann would not say if a settlement would come before then. Lawyers could ask the judge hearing the case to extend that date.

“We hope that this plan will develop a national model for other school districts who are experiencing challenges like the Compton Unified School District to implement in their schools as well,” Eidmann said.

School district officials have said that they are making changes in the school district. School board president said she has plans to bring psychology students to the school district to counsel students.

"The safety and well being of the students of Compton Unified are top priorities for us," a school district spokesman said in an email. "We always welcome opportunities to discuss new ideas that can advance our efforts to benefit our students. We are in collaborative discussions with the plaintiffs and hope that we will resolve this dispute successfully for the school district."

Compton’s School Board President, Satra Zurita, said tight state funding keeps the district from hiring mental health counselors for every school.

Reducing student suspensions and absences as well as cutting the number of teacher turnover and absences, Eidmann countered, would save the school district money that could be used to pay for additional staff.

Some experts who believe childhood trauma is pervasive in urban schools and needs to be addressed in order to help students succeed are torn about whether plaintiffs' lawyers should have pushed for a trial instead of seeking a settlement.

“If the case had actually gone to trial and had come out in the way I would have wanted it to come out, then it would have been precedent setting and it would have been useful,” to compel similar school districts to also implement policies to help students with trauma, said UCLA Professor of Law Jyoti Nanda.

She has full faith in plaintiffs' lawyers, she added, and looks forward to a settlement that would be implemented throughout the 22,000 student school district.

Eidmann and Nanda talked about the Compton lawsuit settlement after a panel discussion on the lawsuit organized by Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law & Policy.

The event highlighted how public agencies across the state and the country are evaluating whether their policies are too harsh on youth, in particular black and Latino kids.

A settlement that involves the Compton school district community could be longer lasting than a court order.

“Ultimately if you want a sustained solution you need the people that are providing the solution to be part of the conversation,” Nanda said.