Judge Rules Effects of Trauma Could Constitute a Disability for Students

“I was around three years old and I used to have nightmares a lot. I used to sleep with my mom and dad. One night I woke up to my dad screaming at my mom pointing a gun at her. Ever since that night I’ve had nightmares a lot.”

When “Virgil,” a high school sophomore, shares this story his voice is soft and his speech slow and halting. His twin brother “Philip” describes, in an equally halting and quiet voice, seeing someone getting shot in the back of the head when he was just 8-years-old, “They threw him over the rail, and he was just sitting there bleeding, blood all down the sewer line. It was a horrifying sight. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.” The brothers have seen more than 20 shootings, including Philip seeing the shooting death of friend. They are only 15-years-old.

Virgil and Philip (not their real names) are two of five students and three teachers in a lawsuit against Compton Unified School District. They allege that the district has failed to properly address the educational needs of students that have obvious signs of trauma. The lawsuit is seeking “training for staff to recognize trauma, mental health support for students to cope with their condition and a shift from punitive disciplinary practices to those based on reconciliation and healing.” They also seek to have “complex trauma” recognized as a disability and afforded the protections of the American Disabilities Act.

The other students are 18, 17 and 13 with equally life-long harrowing tales. The teachers report lack of training to deal with trauma in their students, as well as no support from the administration when they ask for help. They have all experienced physical and emotional distress of having to attend student funerals and the mental anguish of trying to provide support for traumatized students.

Marleen Wong has been studying trauma in students for decades and developed successful programs for school districts to deal with student trauma. In her expert declaration she explains, “Complex trauma occurs when an individual experiences multiple, repeated or prolonged exposure to trauma such that the body’s stress response more permanently impacts the development of the brain.” Children are more susceptible to PTSD because their frontal cortex – the portion of the brain that regulates stress – is underdeveloped.

According to the National Center for PTSD, any life threatening event or one that threatens physical harm, or witnessing violence can cause PTSD. A 2011 study of U.S. children referred to child protective services found 90 percent of the children with substantiated cases of abuse suffered either neglect, physical or sexual abuse. Another national study found that more than 60 percent of children had witnessed or experienced victimization in the previous year. More than a quarter of them had witnessed domestic and community violence.

Compton’s crime rate is five times the national average, which is exacerbated by a poverty rate twice as high. Stan Bosche, a Catholic Priest and counselor at Compton’s Soledad Charter School, told Vice News that 80 percent of kindergartners in his neighborhood have been exposed to gun violence. Armando Castro, one of the teacher plaintiffs, said that when a senior student’s brother had killed himself after seeing a friend shot to death, she came to school the next day like nothing happened.  He noted, “You could just see the hurt all across her face.”

The lawsuit alleges that CUSD failed to take “reasonable steps” to address the needs of these students. They have all been punished severely for anger and outbursts that are common behavioral trauma symptoms. They allege that the lack of active engagement and training of faculty has made it impossible for these students to succeed in school.

Marleen Wong explains how this affects academic performance:

The relationship between exposure to trauma and impairment in school functioning in youth is well-established. Exposure to chronic traumatic stressors in the developing years can cause brain changes that affect memory and cognition. More specifically, violence exposure can reduce a child’s ability to focus, organize, and process information. Witnessing violence is associated with lower academic achievement over time and impaired school functioning. Children exposed to trauma also experience decreased IQ and reading ability, lower GPA, increased days of school absence, and decreased rates of high school graduation.

The Compton Unified School District’s defense has been that the students do not exhibit the “physical or mental impairment” that would qualify protection under the ADA. They also claim they have done some trauma training for faculty. Wong and the lawyers claim the training was not done by an expert, nor did all staff and faculty receive the training. A federal judge has denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to require CUSD to provide the appropriate training and services immediately.

Thus far procedural rulings by the judge have allowed the case to continue. While the motion for class certification was denied, it was dismissed without prejudice, meaning they can seek class certification again. The federal judge also denied the district’s motion to dismiss, saying that, “Plaintiffs have adequately alleged, at least, that complex trauma can result in neurobiological effects constituting a physical impairment for purposes” of disability law.

If the case is ultimately successful, it would set precedent to require public schools to provide the resources and funding to address the needs of students with complex trauma, just as they do for all disabilities.

Photo Credit: John More via Thinkstock


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Paul B.
Paul B3 years ago

We are treading into dangerous ground here. The ADA is already flooded with "claims" of disability, especially during this 6 years of recession and spiked as Workmen's comp claims expired for millions of people.

It won't be long before simply living is grounds for disability.

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se3 years ago


Jennifer H.
Jennifer H3 years ago

To me, this opens an entirely new can of worms and in some ways detracts from the real needs and meanings of the ADA. As others have commented most if not all kids have had some sort of exposure to a trauma physical or emotional that has had long lasting effects on them. Not necessarily street violence but home life being a constant screamfest.

Like Anne M. we had the same goals. Get the diploma and live through home life. The screaming, the dinner plates hitting walls, cups of coffee being thrown at people and I had 25# ice blocks thrown at me among many other things. Emotional jabs were the worst. Never being good enough. One sitting on my back while I was beaten. To this day I have a fear of loud noise. I had a panic attack during the 4th of July neighboring fireworks..

I guess what I am saying is how/where would you draw the line on ADA coverage? And when do you just say that was life then and this is now and get over it like Carole R commented.

Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson3 years ago

How much good could we do by feeding and clothing and caring for the physical and metal health of everyone?

Aaron Bouchard
Aaron Bouchard3 years ago

thank you

Margaret G.
Margaret G.3 years ago

My recollection is that it has been shown that living in dangerous neighborhoods can cause PTSD and that our young soldiers in war zones have a better chance of survival than if they lived in these neighborhoods.

Most people recognize that vets with PTSD deserve help. So why don't the residents of these dangerous neighborhood deserve help?

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola3 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Steve F.
Steve F3 years ago

There once was a time that teachers were only expected to teach. Now they are expected to perform a slew of tasks that require a high degree of advanced specialization. The current case tries to demand that they become psychiatrists as well.

There is no good solution, neither for teachers nor the students. Those who require specialized psychiatric treatment should seek it elsewhere. Let the schools teach.