Compton schools fail to address student trauma, federal lawsuit alleges

Kimberly Cervantes is one of five students in Compton suing the school district, alleging  administrators failed to address physical and emotional trauma that hurt their ability to learn and education.
Kimberly Cervantes is one of five students in Compton suing the school district, alleging administrators failed to address physical and emotional trauma that hurt their ability to learn and education.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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Public interest lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against Compton Unified in federal court on Monday alleging school district administrators failed to address the trauma students face outside schools that locks them out of an education.

Among the five Compton Unified students listed as plaintiffs are those “experiencing or witnessing violence, grief and loss, often the loss of multiple loved ones in a single year," said plaintiffs lawyer Kathryn Eidmann with the public interest law firm Public Counsel.

Some are also in the foster system, have lost caregivers through incarceration or deportation and experience extreme poverty or socio-economic need, including homelessness. They also experience "discrimination, racism, or bias particularly involving law enforcement,” she said.

“These students have experienced what are called adverse childhood experiences,” she said. Their trauma and fear prevent the students from being ready to learn, she said.

Lawyers for the students are asking the court to require the school district to implement reasonable accommodations such as training of teachers and other school employees to help the students. The suit also calls for the hiring of counselors who can address the students' cope with trauma, and a change in the school district's culture so that punitive actions are replaced with steps that get to the root causes of why students may act up in class.

Compton Unified denied that it has failed the students.

“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,” said Compton Unified School Board President Micah Ali in an email.

“We want to point out that until we were notified of this lawsuit, no one had come to us to discuss this issue or to express interest in working with us on it,” he wrote.

The attorneys describe what they say are the students' difficulty lives in California's urban neighborhoods. One student, given the pseudonym of Peter P., has lived with a drug-addicted mother, experienced physical and sexual abuse by her boyfriends, entered the foster care system, and witnessed his best friend shot and killed in middle school, according to the suit. 

He became homeless for two months earlier this year, and Peter P. began sleeping on the roof of his school, Dominguez High School. When school administrators found out, the lawsuit alleges, they suspended him from school and called police to arrest him for trespassing.

Plaintiff Kimberly Cervantes, an 18 year-old high school senior in Compton, describes a tough environment on and off campus. Outside her home, she said she sees drug dealing on a regular basis. 

"I knew that if I shared my stories and told everybody about them that I can change how schools are. Especially because I have three younger brothers and I want things to be better for them because it was really hard for me," Cervantes said in an interview at the Public Counsel offices in Los Angeles.

Compton Unified's response to the students' trauma is at the core of the lawsuit.

“The failure of CUSD to properly account for the disabling impact of complex trauma results in students with the greatest needs and vulnerabilities being effectively denied access to education,” the lawsuit states.

Teachers are affected, too, the lawsuit said, and three are also named as plaintiffs. For some teachers, “the overwhelming energy it takes to manage a class of students manifesting the consequences of unaddressed trauma without the appropriate resources or training leads to burnout.”

The plaintiffs' lawyers say they have their sights on local and national change. They sued Compton Unified in federal court alleging that the school district violated the Americans With Disabilities Act because administrators have failed to address student trauma as an impairment, effectively denying students an adequate education.

Lawyers filed the complaint as a class-action lawsuit so students nationwide who have experienced similar complex trauma that go unaddressed by schools could join as plaintiffs.

At least one educator said that changing a school's environment may be more effective than going to court.

“I’m not a big fan of lawsuits,” said USC School of Education Professor Ron Avi Astor.

The lawsuit will only be productive, he said, “if instead of punishing the schools, it forces university schools of education, and districts to rethink what teachers need to know.”

Astor said a growing body of scientific research suggests kids’ brains are affected when they witness or suffer trauma, which hurts their ability to learn.

He said his research from schools in California and Israel suggests that training teachers and administrators to create a warm, welcoming environment in classrooms can act as a sort of vaccine against problems that hurt students educationally.