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Compton Unified fights a lawsuit over children's 'demons'

Students who say trauma from abuse and violence requires special attention at school demanded that the Compton Unified School District immediately have teachers, administrators and staff undergo training to recognize and understand the effect of such incidents. 

The request was made Thursday in U.S. Federal Court as part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of five students and three teachers from Compton Unified. The lawsuit alleges that the school system has failed to properly educate students who have suffered from repeated violence and other trauma.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post said the lawsuit was filed on behalf of eight Compton students. It was filed on behalf of five students and three teachers.

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The litigation alleges that the district has failed to address the underlying obstacles these students face and has inadequately trained teachers and others to provide these students an appropriate education.

U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald is expected to decide in coming weeks on whether to grant the injunction, which would require the training. He is also considering a request by the school district to dismiss the lawsuit altogether.

The litigation could test whether “complex trauma” qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If the lawsuit is successful, school districts would be required to provide special academic and mental health services to students who have suffered from violence and other trauma.

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The lawsuit describes in detail some of the traumatic episodes of several students, who were frequently disciplined and kicked out of schools and not given appropriate help and services to address their problems. 

One student at the age of 8 first witnessed someone being shot to death. Since then, he has witnessed another 20 shootings, including the killing of a friend. 

Another student, a Dominguez High junior, struggled academically after suffering physical violence from the boyfriends of his mother, a drug addict. He was kicked out of foster care and resorted to sleeping on the roof of the high school, the lawsuit said. After he was found by school officials, they offered no help to him, the lawsuit alleges. 

The boy said he often grew enraged, sometimes believing a "demon" was within him.

Another student, Kimberly Cervantes, 18, a senior at Cesar Chavez Continuation School, stopped attending school for weeks at a time after several traumatic episodes, including being told by teachers that her bisexuality was "wrong,"  the suit said.

Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney with Public Counsel, a Los Angeles-based pro bono law firm that filed the lawsuit along with Irell & Manella LLP, urged the court to force the district to immediately provide the training.

"These students cannot wait for deliberations,” he said. “They are being stopped at the schoolhouse door. They come to school not even knowing they suffer from complex trauma but then they are treated differently.… This is about equal access to education."

Attorneys representing Compton Unified said that the district already trains teachers in "trauma-sensitive practices" and that the lawsuit infringes on the discretion district officials have in training their own teachers and staff. 

In an interview, attorney David Huff said the district responds to students who have a disability and works to provide accommodations and services on an individual basis.

The lawsuit could potentially label all students at Compton schools as disabled simply because they live in an area of socioeconomic disadvantage, he said. 

Huff said the school district does not dispute that each of these children has suffered trauma, but added that the plaintiffs have not demonstrated that any of them now have a physical or mental impairment as a result.

“That’s what disability means under the law,” he said.

Rosenbaum said that students who experience repeated violence and other trauma are not as easily identified as other students with disabilities.

"If you see a child in a wheelchair, you see immediately that you have to make accommodations," he said. "With these children, you can't physically tell unless you understand how trauma operates in the brain."

Rosenbaum said that these and other students are stigmatized by school officials who resort to punitive disciplinary policies that further disrupt their education. By pinning their troubles on a lack of effort or interest, school officials ignore the debilitating effect that violence and other trauma has on a student's ability to learn.

"They are in desperate straits in terms of having a meaningful education," Rosenbaum said. "It is a disservice to them to not recognize their resilience." 

The judge said he will probably issue a ruling on the motions in coming weeks, and urged both sides to consider negotiating a settlement.

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