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Historic Ruling In Landmark Complaint On Unique Learning Needs of Children Affected by Trauma

Kimberly Cervantes is a Compton student and plaintiff in the landmark case.

Sept. 30, 2015 -- In a victory for students and teachers seeking that public schools address a widespread, yet often ignored public health crisis in America--the barriers to learning caused by trauma--a federal judge issued the first ruling today allowing the case to proceed through the courts.

Peter P. v. Compton Unified School District, filed in Los Angeles by Public Counsel and Irell & Manella LLP on behalf of a class of students and three teachers, seeks that Compton Unified School District incorporate proven practices that address the barriers to learning caused by trauma-in the same way public schools have adapted and evolved in past decades to help students who experience physical or other barriers to learning.

Today, Hon. Michael W. Fitzgerald denied in full Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, argued at the first hearing on the landmark class action complaint on Aug. 20. In a 41-page ruling denying the Defendants' motion to dismiss the case, the court recognized for the first time that complex trauma can constitute a disability that public schools have an obligation to address through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

"This historic and life-changing decision recognizes that children who suffer the disabling affects of complex trauma resulting from exposure to violence, racism, extreme poverty, and other adverse childhood experiences are entitled to equal access to education and the provision of appropriate services," said Mark Rosenbaum, Directing Attorney, Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law.

Research shows that childhood trauma can physically alter the developing brains and bodies of children, which can affect cognition and behavior for decades and lead to symptoms similar to those of veterans returning home from war with PTSD. Childhood trauma stands in the way of academic success for millions of children, especially those in underserved communities. Low literacy, high dropout rates, repeating grades, low achievement, and the school-to-prison pipeline have all been shown to have a high correlation with exposure to trauma. Trauma-sensitive school districts across the nation are beginning to deal with trauma successfully, and when they do, the benefits to kids, to families, and to the community are extraordinary.

"Given today's decision, we look forward to working with the district to expeditiously develop and implement a system of trauma-sensitive support and accommodations that ensure that all Compton students have meaningful access to education," said Kathryn Eidmann, Staff Attorney, Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law.

The lawsuit seeks a remedy centered on proven models of trauma-informed learning being adopted by districts across the country, from the state of Massachusetts to the city of San Francisco, which recognizes the impact of traumatic experiences and helps both students and educators become more resilient in the face of adversity and trauma. The model includes:

  • Adequate mental health and counseling service for the highest need students;
  • Trauma-informed training and support for all educators and school staff;
  • Teaching children skills to cope with their anxiety and emotions; and
  • Implementing positive school discipline and restorative strategies that keep children in school and create a safe and welcoming environment.

In addition to denying Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, the Court also denied without prejudice Plaintiffs' Motion for Class Certification and denied Plaintiffs' Motion for Preliminary Injunction, permitting the case to go forward and be adjudicated after full development of an evidentiary record.

"We are pleased with today's decision upholding the right of trauma-impacted students to vindicate their rights under our federal anti-discrimination statutes, and we look forward to presenting the evidence before the Court," said Michael Strub, Irell & Manella. 

Following today's rulings, the court will set a trial date in coming months. For more information on the case and to view video statements by the student plaintiffs, visit www.traumaandlearning.org.


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