Virgil started feeling unsafe sometime around 4th grade. That's when he remembers his mother telling him and his twin brother, Philip, to stay inside after school. The family had recently moved from Atlanta to Los Angeles, and remaining indoors, their mother told them, was the best way to avoid getting hit by a stray bullet from one of the gun battles that regularly erupted outside their apartment in Compton, California.
Six years later, Virgil and Philip — not the boys' real names — say they've lost track of how many times they've had to run from gunfire, dodge gangs, and contend with overzealous police. Just last year, Phillip witnessed one of his closest friends get shot in the head. Between the two of them, the 10th graders have already lived through more violence than many soldiers. And they've been shuffled through all three high schools in the Compton Unified School District (CUSD) in the past year — Virgil for fighting and insubordination, Phillip for chronically bad grades.
The brothers are now two of the plaintiffs in an unprecedented lawsuit that seeks to force schools to address trauma students face and the effects it has on their ability to learn. The suit, filed on behalf of five current students and three teachers at CUSD, could revolutionize the way children are taught in public schools.
"I've been through a whole lot here in Compton," Virgil says. "And some of the hardest stuff has been in the school."
* * *
The suit, Peter P. vs. Compton Unified, would require the government to recognize "complex trauma" — repeated exposure to violence, neglect, or pain — as a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If the suit is successful, it would force public institutions, including schools, to accommodate those impacted by trauma under Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act, the same law that requires schools to build ramps for kids in wheelchairs and provide reading interventions to those with dyslexia.
It's not uncommon in California for students, parents, and teachers to sue their schools. Over the past 15 years, suits have successfully forced schools to spend more money on textbooks, provide more classroom hours for students, and to devote more resources to teaching English-language learners.But the Compton suit is a not a routine call for more resources. It's a test case designed to push the courts to redefine regular exposure to trauma as a bona fide disability.
'Everything we used to know about trauma's impact on the brain was based on people coming back from wars, but now we are seeing studies coming out of gang-impacted and violent neighborhoods — and what we are seeing is devastating.'
If successful, it may open a flood gate of reform in public schools as thousands or perhaps millions of students would require "accommodations" to address their learning needs. The suit could force districts to hire more counselors, train their staffs to understand the latest brain science, and overhaul their disciplinary tactics so that schools focus less on punitive punishments and more on keeping students in school — even if the students act violently themselves.
"Public schools are now for the most part 'trauma-blind,' lagging behind the science, and they are not living up to their legal requirements," says Kathryn Eidmann, one of the attorneys at the LA pro-bono law firm Public Counsel who brought the suit.
She argues that ignoring trauma is tantamount to failing to build a ramp for a student in a wheelchair. "Schools are required to make sure their students receive equal access to education," she says. "And the science shows you can't do that without addressing trauma."
After Peter P. was filed in May of this year, CUSD attempted to have the suit dismissed. But on October 1, Federal District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald rejected the school district's motion, clearing the way for a possible trial.
In the legal brief asking the court dismiss the case, CUSD lawyers argued that "trauma is neither a recognized physical or mental impairment nor properly demonstrated to deprive [students of] meaningful access to an education. While the blight of all 'socioeconomically distressed cities' throughout America is rightfully a major concern of today's society, Plaintiffs cannot use this forum as a means of fashioning those issues into a question of disability rights as they see fit."
The Compton Unified School Board did not respond to VICE News' repeated requests for an interview. But in several public statements released since the suit was first filed in May, CUSD officials said the district already takes trauma seriously."The district is committed to providing a quality education to all students and will continue to do so," superintendent Darin Brawley said in a public statement. School Board president Micah Ali added that "any allegation that the District does not work hard to deal with consequences of childhood trauma on a daily basis is completely unfounded."
For its part, the lawsuit against the school describes a district that is woefully underprepared to meet the needs of its students. CUSD employs fewer than two dozen psychologists and counselors across the nearly 25,000-student district. Nearby Beverly Hills High, with 1,800 students, employs nine counselors and a psychologist — more than all three high schools in CUSD combined. The district, the lawsuit alleges, provides inadequate trauma training to staff each year, and regularly expels students that Eidmann and her co-counsels say are scarred by exposure to violence.
* * *
The science behind the Compton suit draws on decades of scholarship and dozens of peer-reviewed studies on how trauma impacts the mind and body.
Brain science is still in its infancy, but specialists who study PTSD in veterans have been able to use imaging software to show that trauma changes the architecture of the brain and alters its internal balance, stunting the receptors that help regulate stress and flooding the brain with chemicals that interfere with short-term memory. And youth education specialists have long documented how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) — a range of early life hardships including domestic abuse, exposure to violence, and neglect — can predict low academic performance.
Over the last 10 years or so, these two currents of scholarship have begun to merge.
"The science is relatively new," explains Marleen Wong, associate dean and clinical professor at the USC School of Social Work. Wong has led several of the major childhood trauma studies in LA County that look at the relationship between violence and childhood PTSD. She is also an expert witness testifying in support of the Compton suit.
(Photo by Nate Miller/VICE News)
"Everything we used to know about trauma's impact on the brain was based on people coming back from wars," she says. "But now we are seeing studies coming out of gang-impacted and violent neighborhoods, as well as studies looking at trauma after school shootings — and what we are seeing is devastating."
The growing body of scientific literature shows that children who endure trauma before adolescence struggle to learn in school because their brains and brain function — memory, ability to focus, response to punitive measures — are measurably different from those of students who don't experience high levels of trauma.
Dr. Doug Bremner, professor of psychiatry and radiology and director of the Clinical Neuroscience Research Unit at Emory University, pioneered the use of brain imaging technology to visualize how trauma is etched into the very structures of the brain. When children repeatedly experience extreme stress, he says, it has a measurable effect on internal chemistry of their brains — specifically in the mechanism that controls fear.
"The frontal cortex is designed to inhibit the fear response system in the amygdala, but we can show in some of the recent imaging studies that the frontal cortex is not activating normally in some traumatized brains," he says. "In many traumatized people it's like the fear system has gone awry — if you're under chronic threat, it wants to stay on, and [in] some people it's really hard to shut off."
That means that "normal stresses" — a teacher's punishment, or a fellow student's offhanded insult — can trigger a fight or flight mechanism designed to kick in during a life or death situation. And a student with a brain that's flooded with chemicals designed to help humans survive in deadly situations is not ideally suited to learn algebra. Often, says Bremner, unless a traumatized child feels completely safe, the areas of the brain that control short-term memory retrieval necessary for classroom learning can be slow to come online.
"Learning with trauma is more than just a challenge," Bremner says. When researchers look at the brain of a child who's experienced a great deal of trauma next to that of a child who hasn't, "we are basically looking at two different kinds of brains."
But one thing that makes the study and treatment of trauma so complex is that it doesn't manifest the same way in every student. "It's a spectrum," Bremner says. "Some kids won't even show any noticeable signs, even if they've lived through terrible violence."
* * *
For some students, trauma leads to a chronic inability to focus. For others like Virgil — a soft-spoken high-achiever who earns As and Bs, and says he hopes to become a doctor or lawyer — it can hardwire the brain to lash out in fear. That could explain, his lawyers say, why he's been repeatedly expelled and suspended from CUSD schools for getting into fights.
At 3 years old, Virgil says he woke in the middle of the night and saw his father pointing a gun at his mother while yelling, "I'm done." Since the second grade, he's lived with his mom in Compton, a place he describes as "a gang-ridden slum."
"For a long time I described myself as 'having an anger problem,'" Virgil says, though he's now working hard to tamp down the rage that so quickly bubbles up when he's feeling stressed. "I remember back in elementary school I used to blow up — just go crazy — if someone just stepped on the backs of my shoes."
Philip discusses growing up in Compton.
Virgil's twin brother, Philip, witnessed his first murder at age 8. "Somebody got shot in the back of the head with a shotgun," he recalls in a video on a website dedicated to the case. "And they threw him over the rail, and he was just sitting there bleeding, blood all down the sewer line. It was a horrifying sight."
Virgil and Phillip are joined by three other CUSD students in the the suit, including a homeless student who slept on the roof of his school, a bisexual student who skipped class for fear of discrimination, and a 6th grader who was mistakenly arrested at gunpoint at his Compton middle school.
These experiences aren't outside the norm, says Stan Bosche, a Catholic Priest and counselor at Compton's Soledad Charter School. The students in his neighborhood are like "kids who grew up in a war zone." Nearly 80 percent of the kindergartners with whom he works report exposure to gun violence.
Bosche's experience is born out by statistics. The murder rate in Compton is five times the national average, and a recent study by Wong and RAND Corporation found that 27 percent of students in LA Unified reported PTSD-like symptoms from exposure to trauma.
But neither Virgil nor Philip have ever received counseling in the school system. Virgil can recall only one teacher talking to him about life outside the classroom.
"I feel like I can't be open with staff and teachers," he says. "There's nobody around I feel comfortable talking to."
Last year, Virgil was expelled from Compton's Centennial High School after he got into a fight with another student. The principal broke up the fight by grabbing the 15 year old around the waist and dragging him through the lunch room.
School police then handcuffed Virgil. Back at school the next day, he had a meeting in the principal's office.
"I hate you, and I hate your school," Virgil told him.
"Well, you don't have to be here," he remembers the principal saying. The next day, Virgil was expelled.
Students like Virgil don't get into fights because they are violent people, Wong says. Rather, it's due to the heightened "fight or flight" reflex triggered by repeated exposure to violence.
"The back part of the brain that controls fear and survival is engaged," while the front part that regulates those reflexes is unable to tamp them down quickly, she says.
But if school officials aren't trained to recognize those signs, traumatized kids can be treated like criminals, moved from school to school — or in some cases, simply ignored.
Armando Castro. (Photo by Nate Miller/VICE News)
No matter how well-meaning an educator may be, dealing with traumatized students can be a near-insurmountable challenge, says Armando Castro, a teacher at Compton's Chavez Continuation School. This is especially true, he says, if the district can't or won't allocate resources for training and mental health interventions. He wants the schools where he works to take trauma more seriously.
That's why Castro joined the lawsuit against his own district. Castro says he can easily identify the symptoms of trauma among his students: quick tempers, short attention spans, glassy looks. What's harder, he says, is knowing how to respond. Chavez Continuation doesn't have a full-time counselor on staff, and Castro has not been trained to deal with students who come to his classroom after seeing a friend die or parent arrested. So when the student shows up to school exhibiting the telltale signs of trauma, Castro says he often feels powerless.
He recalls one student, a senior, whose brother killed himself after witnessing a friend be shot to death. "The student just came to school the next day as if nothing had happened," he says. "You could just see the hurt all across her face."
The school did not have any mechanism in place to help her readjust to the classroom, Castro says; no counselors and no phycologists. He wasn't sure how to help her on his own, and looked on helplessly, he says, as her grades started to slip.
"Honestly, I wasn't sure how to talk to her after she went through all that," he says. "I just tried to be nice to her."
Castro hopes that she will still be able to graduate on time by the end of this school year.
* * *
One of the potential weaknesses of the Compton suit is that while trauma is measurable, what constitutes "trauma-sensitive" schools is still very much an open question. The suit itself demands that CUSD retrain its entire staff to understand the impact of trauma on learning, bring on more mental health professionals, and overhaul the discipline system that expels students like Virgil and Philip.
But the models for this type of approach are still being hammered out. Implementing such a program would be easier if the school is convinced to change itself, not dragged kicking and screaming by the courts, says Ron Avi Astor, the Lenore Stein-Wood and William S. Wood Professor of School Behavioral Health at the University of Southern California.
"I'm just not so sure about this tactic of suing schools," Astor says. "It makes them defensive and doesn't necessarily lead to positive change."
While he's sympathetic to the science behind the suit, he thinks that making the schools the target of the suit feels arbitrary. "Why not sue the teachers colleges?" he says. "That's where these teachers should be learning about trauma anyway. Or why not the principal academies? Suing the school is just going to squander precious resources."
Watch VICE News' 'Post-Traumatic Streets Disorder.'
The question of resources is also a major sticking point between the lawyers and the district.
Eidemann won't put a dollar amount on what it would cost to reengineer CUSD to be trauma sensitive, but she does make the claim that it could save money. Instead of expelling traumatized students and losing the daily fees paid by the state for a student, she argues, a trauma sensitive district would retain more students and therefore retain those fees. Over the long term, she says, a trauma sensitive school would run more efficiently and not waste resources over-disciplining traumatized kids.
That's an argument the district is not buying.
"[It's] a very strong mandate," the district's attorney David Huff told NPR. "And it needs to be funded." Eidemann counters that if the court recognizes complex trauma as a disability, the district will need to change — the question of cost, she argues, doesn't impact the legal question at the center of the case.
"The law requires the school to do whatever is necessary to accommodate disabilities," she says, "regardless of the cost."
About $20 million of the CUSD's $153 million budget was dedicated to special education programming in 2014. That money was spent developing and implementing education plans — called IEPs and 504s — specifically designed around the needs of disabled students. A child with dyslexia, for example, could get a specific accommodation to bring in a reading counselor and buy special software or textbooks.The type of accommodation the suit demands, however, is entirely different than these traditional disability programs. The suit is not asking the district to diagnose each student and determine if he or she is suffering from trauma in order to come up with an individual learning plan. Rather, the suit demands the entire school become trauma sensitive.
Since that term is still ambiguously defined, it's next to impossible to predict how much what the suit demands would cost. The plaintiffs' lawyers won't speculate, and though the district has said the lawsuit threatens to shoulder them with a giant unfunded mandate, it hasn't thrown out any numbers either. Simply hiring enough counselors to bring Compton's high schools up to par with Beverly Hills High could cost half a million dollars a year in salaries alone, and Compton's needs would presumably be greater than those of Beverly Hills. And bringing on more counselors alone wouldn't address teacher training or disciplining strategy.
The plaintiff's lawyers downplay the question of cost and are quick to point out that a number of local trauma specialists have already offered to pitch in free of charge.
Dr. Chris Blodgett, director of the Child and Family Research Unit at Washington State University, says he hopes the suit puts districts around the country on notice. Blodgett's team has piloted trauma-sensitive school programs in 10 schools in Washington with the help of millions of dollars in outside grants.
(Photo by Nate Miller/VICE News)
"In terms of implementation of trauma-sensitive schooling techniques, we are in the very early stages nationally," he says. He acknowledges that it requires a herculean effort to overhaul disciplinary techniques, inject mental health professionals into the schools, and educate teachers about trauma and brain science. And the school-wide studies that seek to measure effectiveness, he says, are still in their infancy.
Meanwhile, CUSD is challenging the suit on multiple fronts, claiming that Eidmann and her team do not have standing to challenge the district's educational decisions in court, that the reforms being suggested are too expensive, that trauma isn't a defined disability under the ADA, and that the district already does all it can to help students. David Huff, the school district's attorney, argues that labeling traumatized students "disabled" would stigmatize them over the long term.
"A sweeping declaration would effectively tell these children that they have now been labeled as having a physical or mental handicap under federal law," he says.
In his first set of rulings in late September, Fitzgerald denied a request by Eidmann and her co-counsels to force the school to re-train its teachers immediately. He also rejected an argument contained in the suit that exposure to "two or more" traumatic experiences would automatically qualify a student as disabled under the ADA.
But the judge did allow the suit to move forward, rejecting the district's preliminary motion to throw out the case. If the two sides can't reach an agreement, the lawyers will begin putting the notion of trauma on trial sometime in the next few months.
* * *
There are many violent cities in the United States. Eidmann and the lawyers say they worked with mental health professionals like Wong to use Compton as a sort of test case to see if the ADA could be leveraged to help kids like Virgil and Philip nationwide. Since Compton is often associated with crime — with double the national poverty rate and five times the murder rate — the LA-based Public Counsel firm saw an opportunity to test the trauma-as-disability argument in their own backyard.
Their motivations are also political. Eidmann and Wong say funnelling traumatized kids into schools without proper support will feed what Wong calls "the school to prison pipeline," as schools increasingly call in the police to handle students like Virgil.
"I've interviewed many young people who have been in prison most of their lives — all have a history of trauma, all have instances that are associated with school failure," Wong says. She says the suit could serve as a catalyst to short-circuit that system.
For Virgil, it's more personal. "I don't want other teenagers to have to be misunderstood for their conditions like I've been," he says. "At the end of this, I want the schools to actually try to cope and understand our situation. I guess I just want them to actually talk to me."
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro