California

Students, teachers sue for mental health services in Compton, Calif.

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Students and teachers in Compton, Calif. filed a class-action lawsuit against their school district Monday for not addressing issues of childhood trauma they claim are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The suit argues that just as schools are legally required to provide ramps for students in wheelchairs, schools are also legally obligated to provide additional help for students who have been exposed to repeated traumatic events.

“Our laws say that schools are obligated to accommodate children with particular needs with learning,” said Kathryn Eidmann, an attorney for Public Counsel, the law firm that filed the suit.

Public Counsel, which is partnering with Irell & Manella LLP on the Compton suit, is a law firm that works pro bono on behalf of children and families who live at or below the poverty line in Southern California. This is the first lawsuit of its kind, Eidmann said.

“Like school districts across this state, especially those who serve working class families, we are constantly challenged to find the resources to meet every identifiable need,” Micah Ali, Compton School Board’s president, wrote by email. “We have not yet seen the lawsuit, but any allegation that the District does not work hard to deal with consequences of childhood trauma on a daily basis is completely unfounded.”

A student identified in the lawsuit as Peter, 17, is in 11th grade at Dominguez High School in Compton. Like most of the other students listed in the suit, Peter is not his real name. Minors have a right to remain anonymous in order to protect their privacy pertaining to education records, Eidmann said.

Peter spent most of his younger years in foster care, moving from house to house and school to school. While in middle school, he witnessed his best friend get shot and killed during the school day. He says in the suit that the shooting of his friend was only one of dozens of shootings he’s witnessed. Last year, he became the victim of a stabbing himself when he tried to protect a friend from a knife-wielding relative.

Now a junior in high school, Peter loves math and has earned honors in this subject since fifth grade, but said it’s been difficult to keep his grades up recently.

“You have no one to actually talk to at school,” Peter said. “I want people I can trust.”

Peter found himself homeless two months ago, so he decided to sleep on the school cafeteria’s roof. When the school discovered him two weeks ago, he was suspended and reported to the police for trespassing.

That’s one reason Peter has decided to join the suit, along with four other students and three teachers, against the Compton Unified School District. Peter and his fellow plaintiffs hope the result will be more in-school practices that address childhood trauma.

Eidmann said they decided to single out Compton Unified because of its high concentration of students who are dealing with mental health issues brought on by multiple traumas. She said the problem was not unique to Compton and can be seen in many other low-income districts across the state and country. Eidmann hopes this case will set a legal precedent for requiring better school mental services across the state and nationally.

“It’s very well established that children who multiple traumas are very impacted in their learning.” Eidmann said. “The science is really clear, but the law hasn’t recognized that.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about California schools.

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Andra Cernavskis

Andra Cernavskis is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She has previously worked as a reporter for The Buffalo News, and… See Archive

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