Talking About the Trauma

In the United States District Court of Los Angeles a case is being brought against the Compton Unified School District for failure to not adequately provide appropriate education and assistance for those students who have suffered from a “complex trauma.” The Plaintiffs assert that too often the school district turns to punishment for students who are attempting to cope with the struggles they face in their lives.

To better understand the type of trauma these students are experiencing it is important to understand the environment these children have grown up in throughout their lives. Compton is a city located south of Los Angeles and has an extremely violent reputation; last year alone the murder rate in Compton was five times the national average. These students face problems of addicted parents, homelessness, and a constant fear of violence in their everyday lives. One of the Plaintiffs said that he witnessed his first murder at the young age of eight, took a bullet to the knee, and in 2014 alone witnessed twenty shootings; another Plaintiff was mistakenly arrested at gunpoint by police at school. One plaintiff was sexually assaulted on the bus, on her way home from school. Gangs are a normal part of life and fear is something that students have to accept as a part of their lives. According to Susan Ko of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, exposure to violence can have a profound impact on one’s ability to learn.

The suit being brought argues that “complex trauma” should be considered a disability under the Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disability Act. The complaint states that individuals who experience chronic or repeat trauma demonstrate physiological impairment in performing normal daily activities such as thinking, learning, reading, and concentrating. Something as simple as social interaction can cause bodily distress due to former trauma. Memories of fear can be created on multiple levels in the brain’s system because trauma triggers multiple functions of the brain. Research by Victor Carrion and Shane S. Wong of Stanford University shows that the hippocampus plays an important role in learning new information. Those who have experienced “complex trauma” have a smaller hippocampus, which makes learning more difficult. By classifying “complex trauma” as a disability the complaint asserts that these children will be able to receive the help they need to process their trauma and move forward.

A recent article said that a program implemented in the Los Angeles School District of 10 counseling sessions was effective in helping the students recover and improve their performance in school. By providing programs such as this one in low income areas teachers will receive the training necessary to: recognize trauma and seek mental health support to assist the students in coping with their trauma. These programs will allow school’s from a punishment structured system of handling student outbursts as a result of their trauma to promoting reconciliation and mediation before jumping to a suspension or expulsion.

The school district is extremely sympathetic to these children, but has to acknowledge the large costs that would have to be allocated to these programs and that there are other school districts with these same issues that do not have lawsuits pending.

While the cost may be high,is it possible that now is the time to spend more in cities and neighborhoods such as Compton to promote students getting the help they need for the trauma they have experienced throughout their lives? As a nation we should prioritize investing in children’s futures. It is important to recognize that every child deserves a chance to have a positive learning experience and feel safe in the school environment. While this occurs in places outside of Compton, maybe it is time for all states to take a look at their lower-income neighborhoods to see what they can do to help kids who are suffering from “complex trauma.” These kids deserve a chance to learn and create better lives for themselves and future generations. This transition may not be an overnight transformation, but by classifying “complex trauma” as a disability more students will be able to get the help they need.


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