November 24, 2015 Practice Points

Might the ADA and Rehabilitation Act Require Accommodation of the Effects of Trauma in Education under the ADA and Section 504?

By Donielle Robinson

The answer is a qualified yes. In P.P. et al v. Compton Unified School Dist., the federal district court held in the context of a motion to dismiss that students and teachers adequately alleged the elements of a disability claim under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the court's words, it "acknowledges the allegations that exposure to traumatic events might cause physical or mental impairments (login required) that could be cognizable as disabilities under the two Acts."

In their complaint, the students and teachers claimed that the students' exposure to traumatizing events is a disability which the district did not properly accommodate. The named plaintiffs identified their exposure to a variety of community trauma (shootings, stabbings, sexual assault, mistaken arrests). They alleged that the district ignored their duty to accommodate the trauma in schools, and failed to train staff to understand complex trauma or to implement practices necessary to address violence and conflict.

The Ruling
In an extensive opinion on both Section 504 and the ADA and their interface with the Supreme Court's Twombly-Iqbal standards, the court found that plaintiffs set forth adequate claims that (1) that they had a disability, (2) were otherwise qualified to receive an educational benefit, and (3) were denied educational benefits by reason of their disability. The court also found that claims that the district violated the implementing regulations of the Rehabilitation Act were enforceable through a private right of action. While cautioning that its ruling was not a determination on the ultimate issue, the opinion provides a thoughtful and critical analysis of the issues, and a possible template for cases in other jurisdictions.

The court's ruling focuses on the facts established by the plaintiffs, which could give rise to claims under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA. Most notably, their claims that complex trauma can give rise to neurological changes and that such trauma has caused the students particular limitations in their abilities to perform tasks. While the court made clear to note they were not acknowledging a legal position that exposure to trauma is a cognizable disability, it found that the plaintiffs provided enough facts to demonstrate they could or may establish a claim—enough to survive a motion to dismiss.

In part, the suit calls for CUSD to incorporate proven practices that address trauma—a model other public schools around the nation have adopted. If the court ultimately rules that exposure to traumatizing events is a disability, its impact could go far beyond the district involved in the case to impact other public school systems.

Keywords: children's rights, litigation, Compton Unified School District, trauma, education, disability, Rehabilitation Act, Section 504, ADA

Donielle Robinson is a Case Western Fellow at the Legal Assistance Foundation in Chicago, Illinois.

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