A federal judge recently ruled that students who witness traumatic events while growing up in poor, violent neighborhoods could be described as disabled. The plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit against the Compton Unified School District (CUSD) contend that students who have been exposed to trauma deserve the same protections and services that schools are required to provide to traditionally disabled students.
The plaintiffs believe that approximately 25 percent of the 22,000 students in the CUSD have been exposed to a minimum of two or more serious traumatic events. Nevertheless, the judge wrote that the experience of trauma does not mean that the child will suffer disabilities that were caused by trauma, and will be denied the opportunity to have an education.
In his ruling, Judge Fitzgerald is making a significant distinction. He’s not disputing whether exposure to traumatic events can cause a student to become disabled. He’s stating that there is no guarantee that such exposure causes disability.
Additionally, the court denied a request to compel the CUSD to provide more compulsory trauma training for staff. The district offers some training, but plaintiffs contend that it is inadequate. This type of request usually involves a difficult legal battle. Plaintiffs are seeking a mandatory injunction, which is an order for someone to begin performing an action as opposed to an order for someone to cease engaging in an action.
The city of Compton, which is situated just south of Los Angeles, has had a reputation for violence for many years. In 2014, the murder rate in Compton was over five times the national average. Some students who attend schools in Compton say that they have suffered trauma as a result of having lived in Compton, and that the schools they attend have not given them the help that they need.
Not All Traumatized Students Are Disabled
According to the complaint, the students are dealing with physical and sexual abuse. Some have parents who have addiction problems; others are homeless, and many are living with a never-ending fear of violence. Such exposure to violence can adversely affect a student’s ability to learn, says Susan Ko of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. The suit contends that trauma is a disability, and that under federal law, schools are required to help students who are traumatized, and not expel them.
However, the district’s attorney, David Huff, argues that the lawsuit defines disability too broadly, and sends an incorrect message to students living in other violent areas. The message would be that they are handicapped under federal law.
I don’t think that children who are exposed to trauma should be labeled as disabled because of the message the label sends to them. Children in other neighborhoods marked by trauma would also begin to think of themselves as disabled, and such exposure to trauma does not make one physically or mentally disabled. There are also children who do not grow up in violent neighborhoods, but who experience violence and trauma in their own homes on a daily basis. Still, I believe that there could be more trauma training for staff, and programs in place to help students who experience trauma.