A homeless high school student spent the better part of the past two months overnighting on the roof of the cafeteria at Dominguez High, it was revealed in a class-action lawsuit filed Monday against the Compton Unified School District.
This incident and the experiences of four other students are cited as evidence of emotional and psychological trauma the suit asserts the district is obligated to address under federal law that guarantees equal educational opportunity for students with disabilities.
The suit seeks recognition of serious emotional trauma, known as "complex trauma," as a disability covered under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA.
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"School districts have an obligation to accommodate students who have impairments in learning, reading, thinking, and concentrating." said Kathryn Eidmann, a Public Counsel attorney on the legal team that prepared the suit. "Evidence shows traumatic experience undermines ability to learn."
The lawsuit identified the student who slept on the roof as Peter P., age 17. The suit presents a stark summary of a young life filled with horrors: physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his biological mother's boyfriends, the witnessing of multiple shootings, being wounded himself "when he threw himself in front of a friend whose relative was attacking her with a knife."
After living in foster and adoptive homes, he became homeless in March, and began staying over the cafeteria.
"That's how bad the school is. You can't even notice that a student is living at the school there," Peter said in a statement video-recorded by the legal team, shadowing his face because he is a minor.
"I have flashbacks to what has happened to me as a kid. It either makes me mad or makes me sad, or I just want to put my head down, I just want to leave the classroom," said Peter. "I would love to see my school as my peaceful place, where I could be feeling safe, calm, and not have to worry about anything else."
School officials were more concerned with punishing Peter than getting him help, Eidmann said.
"At no time did administrators provide any support or services," the suit alleges. "Instead, he was suspended ... and ... threatened with law enforcement involvement if he persisted in trying to return."
The school district is not finished "analyzing the lawsuit," said Micah Ali, president of the district's governing board of trustees. However, he challenged some of the factual allegations, and insisted that the district took steps to help the homeless student once administrators became aware.
"And when the information was brought forward, we moved very quickly to provide remedy for that particular student," Ali said. He praised one of the district's elementary school principals for taking in a student who was living in foster care.
The Compton district is committed to meeting the needs of students, but would need augmented funding if the requirements of the IDEA Act are expanded, Ali said.
Housing arrangements have been made for the homeless Dominguez student, and he is back in school, even as the lawsuit moves forward.
Eidmann said the solutions sought by plaintiffs include three main elements: training for teachers and administrators, replacing punishment with "restorative" justice, and providing mental health counseling for students in need.
"I want to figure out a way ... for the teachers to understand the students," Peter P. said in his statement.
Another student plaintiff in the suit, Kimmie Cervantes, 18, said she finds solace in writing and performing her own poetry, which often deals with feelings of depression and isolation.
"What I'm really trying to say
is that I hated to get up
to go to school every day"
Only two school districts in California, San Francisco Unified and San Diego Unified, have launched "trauma sensitive practices," Eidmann said. The concept is farther along in two other states, Washington and Massachusetts.
Ali questioned why Compton Unified was singled out as the defendant among the dozens of school districts in California.
"Compton is, of course, not the only community affected by these challenges. However, it is disproportionately affected by complex trauma," said Eidmann.
Public Counsel is working on the case with the private law firm Irell & Manella, LLP.
Eidmann and Ali Tuesday both indicated a willingness to discuss resolutions before proceeding to trial.