Just how much does a mental health concern affect the academic performance of students, and should school systems be required to provide extra care to students with mental illnesses in order to ensure success in school?
These questions are among the many that a California court will have to answer, after a class-action lawsuit was filed against the Compton Unified School District, claiming that school administrators fail to provide adequate resources to students who have suffered traumatic events.
The lawsuit, according to the Los Angeles Times and California Healthline, states that students who are recovering from a “complex trauma” are at a disadvantage when it comes to school work.
If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, it will set an important precedent: a “complex trauma” could be considered a disability under federal law, which would require school systems to provide more resources for students who have experienced traumatic events.
The plaintiffs, Think Progress reports, include three Compton teachers and five students who used to attend Compton — before they were transferred out of the school or expelled because of disciplinary problems.
Court documents state that all five of the former Compton students suffered from a traumatic event that led to psychological instability and/or physical pain.
It’s becoming more and more clear that distressing events do correlate with issues like poor academic work and disciplinary concerns. For example, a 2003 study of sixth-graders from Los Angeles found that among students who had witnessed or experienced violence first-hand, nine of 10 students had lower reading scores, more absences, and were more likely to experience other academic or social problems.
The tricky thing about mental illness is that it is just as serious as a physical illness — which justifies its qualification as a “disability” — but it’s not solved as simply as a physical illness. The average American child experiences anywhere between six and 10 colds per year; rarely is there concern that a small head cold will last for months, or even years. Such is not the case with mental health concerns that stem from traumatic and violent events.
Many times, the symptoms of a mental health concern are virtually invisible, the treatment is expensive, and there’s no guarantee that the individual will get better and stay better.
For this reason, diagnosing children with a mental illness is very difficult, and children from low-income families tend to suffer the most. Not only are they more likely to experience traumatic events, but they’re less likely to have resources available for treatment.
This type of situation is especially prevalent in the low-income neighborhoods in and around L.A., and the lawsuit against Compton has outlined several instances where students in the district were punished by staff members for inappropriate behavior, or failed to meet academic standards, because they had experienced at least one traumatic event.
In addition to providing therapeutic resources to students, the plaintiffs are asking that school systems be required to teach teachers and administrators how to support, rather than punish, students who have experienced complex trauma.