'They will try to kill you, hunt you down:' Inside the fight to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder at school

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

"I seen somebody get shot in the head. I was like 8. My mom don't even know this. Someone got shot in the back of the head with a shotgun and they threw him over the rail and he was just sitting there bleeding. Blood all down the little sewer line. It was a horrifying sight. I wouldn't wish that on anybody. If that person see you, they will try to kill you, hunt you down.  I never talk to anyone. That's what I was taught. Never talk. Keep your mouth shut."   - Phillip, 15


The city of Compton has long had a reputation for gangs and gun violence. But the impact of a sustained chaotic environment has enormous implications for the health and well being of the community - especially the youth growing up in the city.

A new class action lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles, California on May 18 by Public Counsel and Irell & Manella LLP, seeks to hold school systems accountable for not addressing childhood trauma directly.  Peter P., et al. v. Compton Unified School District, et al aims to bring both awareness and systemic change, explaining the lawsuit "demands that Compton Unified School District incorporate proven practices that address 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."

Anne Hudson-Price, one of the Public Council attorneys involved with the case, spoke to Fusion via phone yesterday, to explain why this lawsuit is necessary to fix the problems in school systems around the country. "[Many school administrators] aren't aware of the science - they haven't seen the literature that demonstrates how detrimental trauma is to these communities," says Hudson-Price.  "They are more focused on what they see as a more immediate way to solve the problems, which focuses on expulsions and suspensions." (The Compton Unified School District didn't immediately respond to Fusion's request for comment on the case.)

The complaint filing spells out the stakes in the opening paragraphs:

Decades of research have proven that children who grow up in high poverty neighborhoods characterized by minimal investment in schools, quality housing, after-school programs, parks, and other community resources are disproportionately likely to be exposed to trauma and complex trauma.Trauma stems from such causes as exposure to violence and loss, family disruptions related to deportation, incarceration and/or the foster system, systemic racism and discrimination, and the extreme stress of lacking basic necessities, such as not knowing where the next meal will come from or where to sleep that night.

Complex trauma stems from the exposure to multiple persistent sources of violence, loss, and other adverse childhood experiences (“ACEs”), and describes children’s exposure to these events and the impact of this exposure.  The terms “trauma” and “complex trauma” are often used interchangeably in this complaint, and although a child can be profoundly affected by one traumatic experience, the Student Plaintiffs are all victims of complex trauma, which also is the subject of most of the academic literature cited.  Children in high-poverty neighborhoods are also overwhelmingly concentrated in schools that fail to meet the educational and mental health needs of trauma-affected students. Young people living in the communities with the fewest resources are thus both more likely to be exposed to trauma and less likely to receive the interventions needed to cope with that trauma. This dual assault greatly increases the likelihood of long-term and devastating harm to the educational success and emotional well-being of these young people.

In videos provided by the legal team, Peter, one of the plaintiffs, remembers watching his father punch his mother (then pregnant with his younger sister) in the stomach. "I panicked, and I called 9-1-1. And that's when we were taken from our parents." He details his experience with both flashbacks and homelessness, explaining how he secretly lives at school:

Virgil, who remembers his father pulling a gun on his mother, during a family dispute and struggling with those memories and feelings ever since.


Hudson-Price, and the other lawyers at Public Counsel, hope that the lawsuit sparks both awareness, school reform, and national action.

"We've long heard from experts that if we really want to address the achievement gap, we have to tackle trauma. We want the nation to recognize that trauma is a public health crisis."