Childhood trauma — is it a disability or injustice?

blog-1024x818You may have noticed the recent media attention being paid to the Compton Unified School District lawsuit (NPR and LA Times). The lawsuit has been filed on behalf of eight Compton students and alleges that the school system failed to properly educate students who suffered from repeated violence and other trauma.

Public Counsel, the pro bono law firm that filed the lawsuit (along with Irell & Manella LLP), is asking a Federal judge to grant an injunction that will require the school district to provide training to teachers, administrators and other staff. Echo Parenting & Education is currently in discussion with Public Counsel about what that training might look like, given our experience in conducting trauma-informed nonviolent training for the staff of Sally Ride Elementary, our pilot project for the Whole School Initiative.

Our goal in these trainings is not to tell teachers and others how to do their jobs, but to act as a resource to help district staff recognize and understand the effects of trauma (as specified in the injunction), as well as to provide a trauma-informed nonviolent frame to understand what lies beneath the behavior of all students. Together, we can ensure that children are not further punished for the outworkings of pain, numbness and anger that are the natural consequences of trauma, which can include witnessing community violence and experiencing racism and bullying, but also overly-harsh and misattuned parenting.

It has taken this lawsuit to highlight the plight of the many children who arrive at school with scenes of violence etched in their memories, or feelings of powerlessness in the face of abusive adults or systems. They are primed and ready to blow or have found that the way to survive is to disengage entirely. The conversation is happening at long last, and all kudos to those brave Compton students and the valiant, pioneering pro-bono lawyers, not to mention the long-suffering teachers and parents.

We wholeheartedly agree with the argument that accommodations should be made for students who have experienced trauma, but what we are concerned about is that this litigation is seen as testing whether ‘complex trauma’ should qualify as a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

We must be careful that trauma, this rage and numbness that is (as Bessel van der Kolk says in “The Body Keeps the Score) “honestly come by”, does not become another label to stigmatize and to point blame at some perceived defect in the students, or worse still, a whole community.

Our board chair, Carol Melville, had this to say about the press coverage: “Trauma does not fit into the current legal category of either mental or physical disability. But to diagnose the student is to miss the point that their difficulties are a normal response to extreme stress, that this stress is part of their daily life, that the expectations of the district with regard to how children behave or can behave under those circumstances are erroneous, and that we are NOT doing enough to help.

“It also misses the point that a shift in the district’s approach would benefit all students, and that we are dealing with an antiquated way of addressing behavioral issues — ignoring research on development and the brain.

“There is some reference to training already being done in certain school districts, but there is no discussion about how in some cases this is only a band-aid approach, nor about the complexity of this work, nor about the real needs that all students have (especially those dealing with trauma and toxic stress) with regard to support in order to be able to learn.”

Since Echo is gearing up to begin a two-year training of all 300 psychiatric social workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, we know full well how complex it is to create systemic change and that it goes beyond training the staff of individual schools to include school and school district policy changes.

We also know how vital parents are in this equation, not only because connected, attuned relationships with a primary caregiver create resiliency in children, but also for the sustainability of the project: The alumni of our parenting education classes at Sally Ride Elementary have risen up as parent leaders to support the administration and are learning how to advocate for the rights of their children to a physically and emotionally safe place to learn.

And there really are no enemies in this work. We all want the best for our children and the children in our care, including the good people at Compton Unified. Echo salutes everyone who is struggling, often with limited resources, to educate children, and everyone involved in the effort to create trauma-informed schools. In this struggle, we ask that we don’t lose sight of that fact that none of us have asked for the trauma we experienced in childhood, nor have we wished to visit it on our children. It is not a disability, a disadvantage or irreversible damage. It is, in fact, as the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study shows, all too normal and common.

Let this not be a test case for more psychological labels with pharmaceutical remedies, but a test case for the resilience of the human spirit and our desire to break cycles of trauma in our families, systems and communities.

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