Special Education

Do Distressed Students Have a Right to Trauma-Sensitive Schooling?

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 03, 2019 9 min read
New York Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner speaks at a meeting on the lawsuit in New York City that argues schools failed to adequately respond to trauma.
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In California, Peter was suspended or expelled from school after school after being abused by his mother’s boyfriends and taken into foster care.

In Arizona, Stephen lived with his grandparents in deep poverty on the Havasupai reservation and struggled to learn in a severely understaffed school in the middle of Grand Canyon National Park.

In New York, Maria left her middle school midyear, after years of physical and sexual harassment and bullying led to a drop in grades and constant anxiety.

All three young people have been identified with learning disabilities and all three say their repeated traumas complicate their special education needs.

These students (whose real names have been withheld) and their fellow plaintiffs are at the center of three ongoing test lawsuits that argue schools have a responsibility to consider and mitigate the effects of trauma on learning. The outcomes of these lawsuits could have ramifications for schools nationwide as evidence grows on the negative effects that traumatic events can have on children’s learning and well-being.

See Also: Building a Trauma-Sensitive School

It’s not that all students need individualized education plans, said Lauren Lystrup, a juvenile-justice and litigation fellow at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif., who has been following the lawsuits. “It’s that the district itself has practices that are exacerbating trauma, and those practices need to be addressed.”

Traumatic experiences can range from discrete events like living through a natural disaster to the ongoing stress of parental abuse or homelessness. Emerging research has found repeated exposure to trauma significantly increases children’s risks of later mental- and physical-health disorders, poor academic progress and behavior in school, and other problems.

“The trauma isn’t about an event that happened; it’s about what the impact is,” said Susan Cole, the director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, a joint program of Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Harvard Law School. “Bad things happen all the time that are traumatizing. It doesn’t necessarily mean a student becomes disabled.”

Trauma and Disabilities

Three active lawsuits question how schools should deal with disabilities related to trauma:

Case: P.P. et. al. v. Compton Unified School District

Issues: Should repeated exposure to trauma be regarded as a disability qualifying a student for supports under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act? Must districts serving student populations with widespread exposure to trauma provide schoolwide supports?

Status: A U.S. District Court judge denied the school district’s motion to dismiss the case, acknowledging that the plaintiffs might be able to show repeated trauma may cause physical or mental disabilities that could entitle a student to special education services. The two sides have been in settlement talks as the district implements trauma-informed practices.


Case: Stephen C. v. Bureau of Indian Education

Issues: Can repeated exposure to personal trauma and historic trauma in a community lead to disabilities? What is the BIE’s responsibility to provide adequate resources for special education and student mental-health services in tribal schools?

Status: In March 2018, a U.S. District Court judge denied the Department of Justice’s motion to partially dismiss the case. As in the Compton, Calif., case, the judge found the plaintiffs might be able to show that complex trauma and adversity could lead to a disability. Both sides have moved for a partial summary judgment, but the judge hasn’t ruled on that motion yet. While settlement talks go on, the case has continued to move toward trial.


Case: Jane Doe, et. al. v. New York City Department of Education

Issues: Does failing to respond to trauma from sexual assault or harassment deny students equal access to education opportunities and special education supports?

Status: The complaint was filed in May; the district has received an extension on providing a response.

Rather, traumatic experiences can trigger neurological stress responses—often called “fight, flight, or freeze"—and “if the child isn’t buffered and helped to overcome these stresses, they can grow into disabilities,” Cole said.

Misdiagnosis Is Common

In New York City, attorneys representing Maria and three other middle and high school girls argue that special education teams have a responsibility to be part of that buffering system. The girls already had been identified for special education when they reported experiencing sexual harassment and assaults.

“All four of our plaintiffs were suffering from sleeplessness, difficulty paying attention in class, emotional changes, behavioral changes, having a hard time completing assignments in a timely manner,” said Amy Leipziger, a senior staff attorney at Queens Legal Services, who filed a lawsuit against the school district on behalf of the students this summer. “They were frequently running into their assailants or harassers, and there was that constant retriggering of the trauma. ... It was making it very difficult for them to be like, ‘Here’s the person who raped me, and now I’ve got to go to class to take a math test.’ ”

The lawsuit alleges the students’ IEP teams refused to discuss the girls’ increased academic and emotional difficulties in the context of those experiences and, for some likened their symptoms to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders.

That’s not uncommon, says a report by the nonprofit Child Mind Institute, which studies child mental health. It found ADHD is one of the most common misdiagnoses for post-traumatic stress.

“Symptoms common in PTSD, such as difficulty concentrating, exaggerated startle response, and hypervigilance, can make it seem like a child is jumpy and spacy,” Jamie Howard, the director of the institute’s Trauma Response and Education Service, concluded in the report.

Maria Doe was identified as having a learning disability before she started to experience sexual harassment but has since been diagnosed with anxiety issues. After her grades began to fall, she spent the last four months of the last school year at home.

“My math got better, my grades got better, too, being home-schooled, so I guess that was better,” she said in an interview. “There’s nobody here to harass me or bother me or say derogatory things to me. And I’m one-on-one with someone.”

She will return to regular classes this year, though she has requested a safety transfer from the school her harassers attend. As a result of the lawsuit, Maria said she hoped school and district leaders would become more responsive to signs or reports of students experiencing trauma. “Take everything as serious and investigate more,” she said.

Historic Trauma?

The two other lawsuits, in California and Arizona, argue that chronic and pervasive trauma doesn’t just complicate disabilities but also may qualify as a disability status on its own.

“This is not just a legal requirement” to provide special education services, said Tara Ford, a clinical supervising attorney at Stanford Law School’s Youth and Education Law Project, who is helping to represent Stephen and other Havasupai students. “When schools fail to invest in the resources needed to support students with complex trauma, teachers are less able to teach students, and students are less able to learn.”

Under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act, students are entitled to accommodations for a disability that “impairs a major life function.” Likewise, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to plan supports and monitor progress of students whose disabilities impede their learning.

“I think most administrators and teachers are trying to do the right thing by kids with the resources they have, but they don’t always succeed,” said Daniel Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles, Civil Rights Project. “There are misguided reasons for all kinds of policies and practices, ... and also inequities and unintentional racial bias still affect their perceptions and then their responses to kids and their families.”

The American School Counselor Association found children’s exposure to widespread racial or cultural discrimination can create or aggravate traumatic stress. At Havasupai Elementary, a Bureau of Indian Education school on the Havasupai reservation, for example, lawyers for Stephen and eight other students allege, in addition to students’ personal traumatic experiences, that the tribal community faces historic and ongoing discrimination, including the BIE chronically underfunding the school to the point that it sometimes closed or went without enough teachers for extended periods. Stephen, who was identified as having ADHD, was often sent home from school because there were no mental-health or special education supports.

“District leaders need to take stock of their current use of resources—both time and money,” said Ford, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Havasupai students. “What routine approaches toward students are counterproductive or actively harmful? For example, how much time and money is being spent on punitive discipline, law-enforcement activities, restraint, and seclusion? Can existing resources be redirected in ways that help students?”

If successful, the lawsuits in Compton and the Havasupai reservation could set a precedent requiring schools to provide education accommodations and supports for students with a history of trauma.

From Lawsuit to Teamwork

Joseph Erardi, who was superintendent of the Newtown, Conn., school district after the fatal mass shooting there in 2012 and now consults and trains district leaders in safety and trauma-sensitive schooling for the School Superintendents Association, said the lawsuits reinforce the need for district leaders to work closely with parents and their communities when developing trauma-informed practices at school.

“School boards and school leaders are really taking as deep a dive as they can at trying to first understand the trauma piece and then trying to find partnership with parents and community. And that’s the key: You can’t do this alone,” he said. “If parents felt that they needed to litigate to get what their child needs, I would question the school district, when did their partnership break down?”

“It’s all about sensitivity to what the young person is experiencing and awareness that trauma turns off the learning switch in the brain,” said Mark Rosenbaum of the Los Angeles firm Public Counsel, one of the lawyers who brought the suit against the Compton district in 2015.

Rodney Curry, a 19-year veteran teacher at Peter’s Dominguez High School in Compton, joined that lawsuit with two other teachers. Curry said dozens of his students have died from violence, and students frequently come to him for help with trauma, but he had received no training on how to respond.

“Suspending or expelling a kid because they are ineffectively crying out for help communicates to that student that he or she doesn’t deserve to be helped or understood,” Curry said in the lawsuit.

About This Series

This installment is the second in a series of articles exploring how schools are learning to recognize and respond to students experiencing stress, whether their trauma stems from a sudden disaster or a long-term hardship like poverty or abuse. Read more.

The Compton lawsuit has been on hold since 2016, as the district and the plaintiffs’ lawyers planned ways to address trauma in schools. Teachers now get training on trauma-informed practices.

The district is also setting up wellness centers in secondary schools to provide mental- and physical-health care to students.

Changes in Compton

After a discipline analysis showed rising suspension rates, particularly for students with disabilities and black or Native American students, the district also reviewed its discipline programs and is implementing restorative-justice programs at several schools. School security staff also have been trained in trauma-informed responses, including ways to calm students having emotional outbursts.

“The districtwide recognition is that learning cannot result unless the social-emotional needs of students and teachers are identified and nurtured,” Rosenbaum said.

Lystrup of the National Center for Youth Law called the Compton suit “novel and groundbreaking,” but she also noted its mixed reception from special education advocates. Some have warned that the way the suit frames trauma may stigmatize students in highly disadvantaged communities such as Compton, where nearly 1 in 4 children under 18 live in poverty.

“There’s concern that this is saying all of the students in Compton were more likely to experience trauma and so, kind of labeling all students in Compton Unified as disabled, potentially risking reinforcing negative stereotypes about race and disability,” Lystrup said.

Others hope the lawsuits will raise awareness of trauma-sensitive practices among administrators, teachers, and even students.

This spring, the Compton district partnered with Yetunde Price Resource Center, a charity founded by tennis stars Serena Williams and Venus Williams, and the Carrot Group, a technology nonprofit, to hold an “innovation challenge” in which teams of middle and high school students proposed science and technology-related supports to help those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The winning team, which designed an artificial intelligence app to help teenagers monitor and address their own stress reactions, came from one of the schools that first sparked Peter’s lawsuit, Dominguez High.

Related Video

Listen to Peter P., the lead plaintiff in a California lawsuit arguing that schools have a duty to consider and mitigate their students’ trauma, share his stress-inducing experiences in Compton schools in 2015.

Testimony from Peter P., et al. v. Compton Unified School District, et al. courtesy of Public Counsel.

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 2019 edition of Education Week as Are Schools Required to Be Trauma-Sensitive?

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