Column: Invisible disabilities have visible fall out

“I’ve seen somebody get shot in the head. I was, like, 8,” admits 15-year-old plaintiff, Philip W., in a video on Trauma & Learning, a webpage dedicated to the Compton Unified School District lawsuit.

According to the webpage, Public Counsel and Irell & Manella LLP filed a lawsuit in May against CUSD on behalf of a few students and three teachers for failing to provide adequate treatment to address students’ post-traumatic stress. The plaintiffs argue that trauma should be viewed as a disability as it impedes students’ ability to focus in school, and therefore teachers should have specialized training to give these students access to appropriate education.

However, can a traumatized student be legally classified as disabled?

That seems to be the ongoing debate in this situation, with CUSD insisting that disability is much too broad of a legal term, which would suddenly label most Compton students as impaired.

Research posted on the Trauma & Learning webpage explains how studies have shown that children who experience traumatic moments, such as witnessing or being victims of physical abuse, have been shown to struggle significantly more in school than those with more stable childhoods. Among these struggles are repeating grades, suspensions from school, higher absence rates and behavioral problems.

If studies have shown that minors who have experienced trauma tend to struggle more with these factors, how can schools dismiss trauma as not interrupting their educations?

“You would have to analyze individual situations to see how one’s trauma impacts their functioning,” clarified Connie Beck, an associate professor of clinical psychology.

While one person may face post-traumatic stress after watching their close friend be killed or their mother abused, another person may be able to move forward with fewer difficulties.

“Putting the disability debate aside, this case is dealing with the negligence of the school district,” Beck added.

By federal law, all teachers and school staff are required to report any signs of current or former abuse they may see in their students. But when Dominguez High School administrators found out that 17-year-old Peter P. was homeless and sleeping on the school’s cafeteria roof, they offered no help and instead opted to suspend him.

Had a single teacher decided to offer Peter psychological help, he wouldn’t be constantly battling against his uncontrollable anger that grew from being abused at home or from his violent encounters on the streets.

The CUSD has not only failed to provide a safe environment by offering psychological help—teachers have actually further contributed to students’ trauma. As stated on her student profile on Trauma & Learning, 18-year-old Kimberly Cervantes was verbally attacked by her teachers after coming out with her homosexuality and was physically attacked by one of the security guards during an argument.

With these examples alone, it is evident that the CUSD is already breaking the law by failing to protect students from abuse and neglect.

It is illogical for schools in a community with such a high crime rate not to offer resources for improving students’ education or emotional wellbeing.

Maybe not all students in this community have suffered traumatic experiences or their respective impairments, but the testimonies of students prove that trauma has become a disability for some.

The actions (and lack thereof) of teachers further bring to light the unfulfilled duties and the negligence of the school district.

As Peter P. expresses, “[the students] want to change, but they can’t. Because when they go home, it’s negative. They go to school, it’s negative. Out on the streets, it’s negative.”

All these students are asking for is the equal opportunity that the Americans with Disabilities Act promises to every one of its citizens. In order to give these students equal access to education, it is essential that Compton and other affected schools begin offering mental services to help students address and overcome disabilities associated with their traumatic experiences.

The CUSD may continue to ignore their problems, but with the evidence brought forward, there is no way to deny that they have failed to meet their duty and provide disability access for traumatized students.


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