November 01, 2015

Lawsuit Asking California School District to Implement Trauma-Informed Practices for Students Moves Forward

Eva J. Klain

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

P.P. v. Compton Unified School Dist., 2015 WL 5752770 (S.D. Cal.) (denying without prejudice plaintiffs’ motion for class certification); 2015 WL 5754472 (S.D. Cal.) (denying plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction); 2015 WL 5755964 (S.D. Cal.) (denying defendants’ motion to dismiss class action complaint).

In three separate orders, federal district court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss lawsuit calling for California school district to incorporate practices to help students who have faced traumas such as community violence, family disruption, incarceration, and poverty; denied plaintiffs’ request for preliminary injunction calling for immediate trauma training; and ruled plaintiffs had not yet met burden in establishing “numerosity” or “typicality” in attempt to certify class.

Five student plaintiffs, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, filed suit against the Compton (CA) Unified School District claiming that without schoolwide trauma-sensitive accommodations, they have been and will continue to be denied meaningful access to public education on account of their disabilities resulting from multiple exposures to trauma. In addition, three teacher plaintiffs asserted that the school district’s failure to provide teachers with support, resources, and training to address the high incidence of students experiencing trauma had led to burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Plaintiffs asserted their claims under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Department of Education regulations, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Plaintiffs argued that Compton is a socioeconomically distressed city that experiences high rates of violent crime, and they relied on research showing children who grow up in high-poverty neighborhoods with minimal investment in schools, housing, afterschool programs, parks and other community resources are disproportionately likely to experience trauma and complex trauma. They described “trauma” as stemming from exposure to violence and loss, family disruption, incarceration, involvement with the child welfare system, system racism and discrimination, and the stress of lacking basic necessities. “Complex trauma” was described as resulting from exposure to multiple, persistent sources of violence, loss, and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

Defendant Compton Unified School District moved to have the lawsuit dismissed. In denying defendants’ motion, the court stated it “does not endorse the legal position that exposure to two or more traumatic events is, without more, a cognizable disability under either of the Acts” but “simply acknowledges the allegations that exposure to traumatic events might cause physical or mental impairments that could be cognizable as disabilities under the two Acts.” The allegations in the complaint regarding the consequences of complex trauma on “major life activities” were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

In ruling on the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction seeking immediate training of all teachers, administrators, and school staff about complex trauma, including its effects on development and the ability to learn, the court ruled it was not appropriate at this stage of the proceedings. The court declined to comment on whether the plaintiffs’ proposed trauma-sensitive program might be desirable as a policy matter. 

The court also addressed the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a), a class action is only proper if “(1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable, (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class, (3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class, and (4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.”

In denying the plaintiffs’ motion without prejudice, the court questioned whether the named plaintiffs satisfied “numerosity,” stating that the current estimate of the proposed class required more extrapolation than is permissible for a good faith estimate of the class size. The court also questioned whether “typicality” was satisfied in that the named plaintiffs’ membership in the proposed class was uncertain based on the current evidentiary record but suggested these uncertainties could be remedied with additional evidence and argument.