Friday, September 25, 2020
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When trauma requires accommodation

A class-action lawsuit in California complains that students who attend the schools in Compton have witnessed so much violence in their early years that schools should treat that trauma as a disability and provide special education services for those students, NPR reports.

The brief reads like a litany of abuse by members of the Compton community on students who attend the public schools there. One plaintiff, Kimberly Cervantes, is a student who says she witnessed the deaths of two fellow students while in middle school:

In October of her senior year, Kimberly got into an altercation with a security guard at Dominguez while returning a book to the library that resulted in feelings of terror and serious injuries to Kimberly’s back. As a result of the incident, Kimberly did not attend school for over a week. Although Kimberly and her family filed a formal complaint with the school and attempted to press charges, Kimberly received no services or acknowledgement of the incident.

After transferring to Chavez, Kimberly was sexually assaulted on the public bus on her way home from school. The experience left her traumatized and terrified of traveling to and from Chavez. She again missed multiple days of school, and when she did attend, flashbacks caused her to break down in class. Although the school is aware of the incident, she has yet to receive mental health services.

Kimberly’s access to mental health support has been inconsistent and wholly lacking during times of acute and urgent need. Although CUSD referred her to Shields for Families for counseling services when she was in elementary school, by the time she reached high school she was told that she had “used up” her five years of free services and would have to start paying if she wanted to continue therapy.

The plaintiffs are charging the school district with violating their rights to special services, such as the mental health support Kimberly clearly needs, under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The suit brings in research several decades old to support its claim that witnessing murder and other violence as a teen or preteen, as many children in Compton have, creates a disability under the ADA, because it makes kids feel (temporarily) hopeless.

Childhood trauma, plaintiffs contend, is any external force, including one in a community, that renders the young person “temporarily helpless and [breaks] past ordinary coping and defensive operation … [including] not only those conditions marked by intense surprise but also those marked by prolonged and sickening anticipation.” This definition came from Lenore Terr’s article “Childhood Traumas: An Outline and Overview” in a 1991 edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Although we certainly believe violence can have a strongly negative impact on a child’s cognitive development, as NPR quotes Susan Ko of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress as saying, we can’t be sure classifying students who have witnessed this violence as victims of a disability is the right approach either.

Expelling them from the public school system isn’t a solution, and the prevalence of expulsions among this population is the condition that prompted the lawsuit in the first place. But forcing schools to treat these students as disabled will cost some money, which the lawsuit will not provide. That would make any requirement from this lawsuit that the district provide special services or accommodations for students an “unfunded mandate.” When schools are forced to divert funds away from other educational services to accommodate students with the trauma disability, they stop teaching and start babysitting or, worse, practicing medicine.

Students in Kimberly’s class need professional medical help, not a special ed teacher who can modify lesson plans so she can learn how to divide polynomials or study the duties of the US president. This lawsuit will, in effect, tell all these students they’re disabled. It won’t help them and will only divert money away from more pressing and effective uses.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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