Federal Judge Allows Lawsuit Over Student Trauma to Advance

By Mark Walsh — October 01, 2015 3 min read
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A federal trial judge has allowed a novel lawsuit to move forward that calls for a California district to incorporate practices to help students who have faced traumas such as violence, family disruption, incarceration, and poverty.

U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald of Los Angeles turned down the Compton Unified School District’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit on behalf of five students and three teachers in the district. But the judge also denied the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction calling for trauma training to be instituted right away. And he rejected, for now, efforts to turn the suit into a class action representing a larger group of students affected by trauma.

“The court does not endorse the legal position that exposure to two or more traumatic events is, without more, a cognizable disability under either” the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the judge said in one of three opinions he issued on Sept. 29 in the case. “The court simply acknowledges the allegations that exposure to traumatic events might cause physical or mental impairments that could be cognizable as disabilities under the two acts.”

“In other words, the court has determined that, for purposes of surviving a motion to dismiss, the allegations in the complaint suffice for now,” Fitzgerald said in Peter P. v. Compton Unified School District.

Lawyers with Public Counsel, a Los Angeles-based legal organization that organized the lawsuit, called the survival of the school district’s motion to dismiss “historic and life-changing.”

“Compton was arguing that complex trauma is not a disability within our nation’s disability laws,” Mark Rosenbaum, the directing attorney with Public Counsel, said in an interview. “The judge rejected that.”

Officials and attorneys of the Compton Unified School District were not immediately available for comment. The district said in court papers that many of the plaintiffs’ claims rely on the students’ own misbehavior, “such as truancy and schoolyard fights, to demonstrate signs of their disability when these scenarios could be the result of nothing more than immaturity or poor judgment.”

The district also has expressed concerns that the plaintiffs’ theory could result in the vast majority of the 22,000 students in the Compton district being classified as having disabilities under federal law.

The lawsuit detailed specific traumas faced by the five students, including witnessing friends and neighbors being shot, violence at home and on the way to school, and facing homelessness, foster care, poverty, and race discrimination.

Fitzgerald found that the three teacher-plaintiffs had standing in the suit because trauma faced by their students required them to work harder in the classroom to help the students.

The lawsuit says Compton and its officials “have ignored and affirmatively breached their responsibility to accommodate students whose access to education is fundamentally impaired by reason of the trauma they have endured.”

The plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction sought training of all teachers, administrators, and school-site staff “regarding understanding and recognizing the effects of complex trauma, including its effects on development and the ability to learn, think, read, concentrate, and communicate, in accordance with research-based practices that have achieved success in school districts” like Compton.

Fitzgerald concluded that granting the preliminary injunction was not appropriate at this stage of the lawsuit. But barring any settlement, the suit will proceed to trial.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.