Lawsuit straight out of Compton schools: does trauma equal disability?

Federal district court rules that students who experience traumatic events while growing up could be considered disabled.

Photo by Color Lines.

U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald ruled this month in a high profile case involving Compton, California schools.  The ruling allows a lawsuit to proceed against the Compton Unified School District, which claims that the school district has failed to help students who have experienced trauma in their lives, preventing them from learning.  A group of students and teachers sued the school district in May 2015 alleging that the district did not address the effects of their traumatic experiences, such as witnessing violence, which they equate to impairment under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the complaint the plaintiffs provide research demonstrating that exposure to trauma can hurt a student’s ability to learn . . .

 The Los Angeles-based legal advocacy group Public Counsel and Irell & Manella LLP law firm filed the lawsuit on behalf of five students and three teachers.  The lawsuit seeks to require the school district to provide services and accommodations to help students deal with trauma, so they can focus on learning.  On a broader front the lawsuit also aims to establish “complex trauma” as a type of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

In the complaint the plaintiffs provide research demonstrating that exposure to trauma can hurt a student’s ability to learn, similar to other impairments.  The plaintiffs estimate that about 25 percent of the 22,000 students who attend school in the Compton Unified School District have experienced at least two or more “severe traumas.”  The teachers who are among the plaintiffs contend that they are also affected, because they must manage students who have unaddressed trauma without having the resources or training.

The complaint details stories of students coping with homelessness, addicted parents, physical and sexual abuse, and a constant fear of violence.

In order to understand the complaint, a person needs to understand what conditions students are dealing with in the city of Compton.   In 2014, the city’s murder rate was more than five times the national average.  The complaint details stories of students coping with homelessness, addicted parents, physical and sexual abuse, and a constant fear of violence.

One of the plaintiffs, 15-year-old Phillip W., says that he witnessed his first murder when he was just eight years old.  Phillip further estimates that he has witnessed more than twenty other shootings and has also had guns fired at him on more than one occasion.

The complaint alleges that Compton schools’ reaction to traumatized students like Phillip W. is often punishment, rather than help.  Students are sent to another school, expelled, or suspended.

“[C]omplex trauma stems from the exposure to multiple persistent sources of violence, loss, and other adverse childhood experiences”

 The complaint states, “complex trauma stems from the exposure to multiple persistent sources of violence, loss, and other adverse childhood experiences (“ACEs”).”  Exposure to such trauma can have a profound effect on the brain’s ability to learn.  Students may have difficulty concentrating in class and remembering what they have read or heard.

In addition, many traumatized students live in a state of constant alarm.  Many normal interactions, such as a bump in the hallway or a request from a teacher can stir anger and bad behavior.

Students who suffer from complex trauma are overwhelmingly concentrated in schools that fail to meet the educational and mental health needs of trauma-affected students.  The major problem stems from a dual assault.  Children living in high poverty communities with the fewest resources are both more likely to be exposed to trauma and less likely to receive the interventions needed to cope with that trauma.

[S]tudents who have experienced complex trauma should be accommodated, rather than pushed aside.

Under the Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, the plaintiffs argue that schools are obliged to accommodate students who are being denied benefits of educational programs by reason of experiencing complex trauma.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a federal law that protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability.  To demonstrate a violation of Section 504, a plaintiff must show that he or she is an individual with a disability under the terms of the Rehabilitation Act, he or she is qualified to receive “meaningful access” to the benefits sought, he or she was denied the benefits because of his or her disability, and the program providing the benefits receives federal financial funding.

A disability is defined by the Act as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of [an] individual.”  The plaintiffs contend that the complex trauma experienced by the student plaintiffs effects “major life activities” such as, “learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating.”

As a result of their disability, these students are therefore entitled to “meaningful access” of benefits that should be provided by the Compton Unified School District as an educational institution that receives federal funding.

Title II of the American with Disabilities Act similarly requires that no qualified individuals with a disability should be excluded from participation or denied the benefits of a public entity’s “services, programs, or activities” due to their disability.

The proof structure of a violation and definition of “disability” under Title II are virtually identical to Section 504 requirements.  The school district would have the same obligation to the student plaintiffs to provide “meaningful access” to benefits of the school.  The main difference is that Title II extends the prohibition on discrimination established by Section 504 to all activities of State and local governments, regardless of whether they receive federal funding.

According to the plaintiffs, the benefits that Compton Unified should provide include teaching training, mental health support for students, and to use conflict-mediation before resorting to suspension.  Overall, students who have experienced complex trauma should be accommodated, rather than pushed aside.

“Plaintiffs have adequately alleged, at least, that complex trauma can result in neurobiological effects constituting a physical impairment for purposes” of disability law.

 Judge Fitzgerald’s procedural ruling will allow the lawsuit to move forward.  He denied Compton United School District’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, stating that “The Court simply acknowledges the allegations that exposure to traumatic events might cause physical or mental impairments that could be cognizable as disabilities.”

The suit survives on the grounds that trauma could be a disability, but “complex trauma” as defined by the original complaint as “exposure to two or more traumatic events” is not adopted by the court.  Judge Fitzgerald wrote that “Plaintiffs have adequately alleged, at least, that complex trauma can result in neurobiological effects constituting a physical impairment for purposes” of disability law.

Judge Fitzgerald makes an important distinction of what may be found as “complex trauma.”  He concluded that exposure to trauma does not guarantee that a child (1) will suffer “from cognizable trauma-induced disabilities for purposes of the proposed class definition, and (2) have been denied meaningful access to their education.”  He is not denying that exposure to traumatic events can disable a student, but that exposure to traumatic events does not guarantee disability.

The question is how to determine which students are disabled as a result of complex trauma.

The court denied the Plaintiff’s request for class-action status because they had not clearly established numerosity.  Rule 23(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that a class be so numerous that it is impractical to join all potential class members in a single lawsuit.  The general benchmark is that classes of less than twenty are insufficiently numerous and classes of forty or more satisfy the numerosity requirement.

The court does not give a clear answer as to what may constitute as impairment and this makes it difficult for plaintiffs to try to define the size of their aggrieved class.  The question is how to determine which students are disabled as a result of complex trauma.

Judge Fitzgerald also rejected the plaintiffs’ injunction request, stating that such an action would “encroach” on Compton’s ability to set its own direction with regard to staff training.  He further stated that the evidence in the case “does not clearly support a claim of trauma-induced disability that would satisfy a reasonable expert in the field.”

A mandatory injunction requires ordering someone to start doing something rather than to stop doing it.  This requires a high legal standard, and the judge did not find that the plaintiff’s had met this burden.  The plaintiffs will have to satisfy the court’s burden of proof that there was sufficient trauma among the students in order to be granted an injunction.

The plaintiffs and the Compton Unified Schools District may decide to move towards settlement after the federal court’s ruling.  If not, the lawsuit will move forward and students who experience “complex trauma” may eventually be considered disabled and entitled to protection under the law.

Hannah Emory, Associate Editor
About Hannah Emory, Associate Editor (15 Articles)
Hannah Emory is a Campbell Law graduate and served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. She is originally from Dunn, North Carolina and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and History. Following her first year of law school, Hannah interned at the North Carolina Office of the Juvenile Defender.
Contact: Email