This article was originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on July 3, 2017.
M.M. grew up in an inner-city neighborhood in Boston. While in utero, M.M. experienced fetal distress while exposed to crack cocaine. As an adolescent, his mother was repeatedly incarcerated due to drug use. Because M.M. never knew his father, he transitioned in and out of foster homes, and at times, found himself homeless. Growing up, he also frequently witnessed street crime. Unsurprisingly, M.M. suffered episodic depression throughout his youth. Even though M.M. was ultimately provided special education services, he struggled with academics and emotional dysregulation. Ultimately, M.M. dropped out of high school. Today, M.M. is in his early twenties, is unemployed, and has several children for whom he lacks the means to support.
T.T. grew up in a distressed section of North Philadelphia. When T.T. was 10-years-old, while lying in his bed, he heard a loud bang in the living room. An unknown intruder had broken into his house and shot and killed his father. Following the murder, T.T. began to act out in school and was repeatedly the subject of discipline including suspensions and efforts at expulsion.
L.R. grew up chronically witnessing domestic abuse. Over a period of several years, her mother’s boyfriend beat both her and her mom. As a result, L.R.’s family was constantly on the run, moving from town to town to escape the boyfriend. Her education became a refuge for her. But as she advanced through school, the work grew more challenging, and she had difficulty completing the assignments. When she was in high school, her friend’s father raped her. Following the rape, she grew disinterested in school and repeatedly failed 11th grade. She is now on the verge of dropping out.
Unfortunately, M.M., T.T. and L.R.’s experiences are not unique.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice and Center for Disease Control jointly published the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, a seminal report that found that over 60 percent of children suffered or witnessed some form of trauma in 2014. The survey documented that 37 percent of children reported being victims of physical assault the year before and slightly more than half of children surveyed had suffered at least one physical assault during their lifetime. This equates to tens of millions of children experiencing trauma every year. In another study assessing trauma exposure in an inner-city neighborhood, 30 and 25 percent of elementary and middle school children had respectively avowed that they had witnessed either a stabbing or a shooting. The numbers jumped even higher among high school students. Not surprisingly, studies show that traumatized children disproportionately receive lower test scores, suffer school discipline, and receive failing grades. They are also more likely to interact with the criminal and child welfare systems, drop out of school, and experience joblessness and poverty.
Developments in neuropsychology explain how trauma impedes a child’s capacity to learn and opportunities for success. Definitionally, trauma refers to an individual’s inability to utilize normal coping mechanisms to deal with stressful situations. Typically, a dangerous situation will cause an individual to enter into a “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze” response. With “fight” or “flight,” the body is inundated with adrenaline and the individual either seeks to overcome or flee the threat. In “freeze” mode, the individual experiences some form of paralysis or disassociates. When a child experiences chronic trauma, the brain’s “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze” response system becomes overdeveloped and even the smallest triggers can elicit a panic reaction. Because childhood experiences can condition the child’s young mind to associate stress with danger, many of these children will be unable to distinguish between objectively safe conditions and those that present genuine risks of harm, including situations at school. Chronic trauma can also damage brain centers that are responsible for executive functioning activities (such as planning, concentration, organization, and impulse control), emotional regulation, memory, motivation, and trust.
As a result, a child who suffered abuse by a caregiver at home may displace feelings of betrayal or anger on a teacher and act out in school. A child who heard gunshots may become anxious around school sounds such as bells and alarms and avoid attending school. A child who suffered neglect may tune out instruction, causing teachers to perceive her as lazy or disinterested. School stressors, including the burdens of class work and peer relations, can trigger all sorts of traumatic reactions that manifest as behavioral outbursts, mood disorders, and/or emotional distancing that impact instruction time and learning.
Fortunately, for some of these children, there are statutes that require schools to address a child’s emotional disturbance if it interferes with her education. Under our civil rights laws, children who suffer from certain qualifying disabilities, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, may be entitled to certain school-based interventions, including small classrooms, a special education teacher, counseling, and other specially designed instruction and modifications that facilitate the child’s learning. While this can be effective for any given child, it fails to address necessary systemic or school-wide practices that may re-trigger the child’s trauma, or may miss helping other traumatized children who do not have reliable adults in their lives to advocate for them or who otherwise have limited access to the legal system.
Given these drawbacks of treating widespread student trauma solely on a case-by-case basis, five student plaintiffs filed a novel class action lawsuit under the American with Disabilities Act to compel the Compton Unified School District to adopt and implement school-wide reforms to counteract the impact of environmental violence, abuse, and neglect on learning. For relief, plaintiffs sought to implement a series of innovations, including training for school staff on trauma-informed teaching and learning, implementation of alternative disciplinary measures to take into account student traumatization, the teaching of research-based coping skills for children, and the creation of in-school mental health supports. The federal court permitted the case to go forward but denied class certification due to the disparity of legal and factual issues that the case presented. Currently, the parties are discussing settlement.
Because the plaintiffs identified critical public health and education issues facing some of our most vulnerable children, legal advocates should consider adopting and modifying their approach. A joinder complaint, for example, that names dozens of children in a single high poverty school may lead to the same system-wide reforms that plaintiffs sought without presenting the legal hurdles that class actions pose. Educators have already reported success in utilizing trauma-informed instructional approaches which, at a minimum, include: (1) changing schoolwide infrastructure and culture to integrate trauma-based practices into school-wide routines, (2) training staff on recognizing trauma and utilizing best practices for teaching these children, (3) incorporating mental health services into the school setting, (4) incorporating nonacademic strategies such as yoga, mindfulness, and the performing arts all of which help children slow down their reactivity and rewire the brain, and (5) changing policies around discipline. The stakes are too high and the societal costs are too steep to continue neglecting these children.