Possible Implications for Public Schools: Addressing Complex Trauma

The Washington Post,  LA Times and Aces Too High posted stories regarding the lawsuit filed against the Compton School district for allegedly not responding to students’ learning and mental health needs specifically related to complex trauma. The statutory framework for this lawsuit is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and American Disabilities Act. The Washington Post article provides the actual lawsuit and all three articles offer synopses of the trauma experienced by youth named in the lawsuit.  The lawsuit describes and alleges that these young people experienced numerous traumas both on and off school propfile0001681273132erty such as homelessness, physical and sexual abuse, violence, witnessing shootings, unsafe school conditions, and familial behavioral health issues.  Three Compton School district teachers are named for the prosecution alleging that their requests to provide youth with the appropriate behavioral health services were ignored by the district.  For those of us that work in the juvenile justice or behavioral health fields these stories seem all too common. Decades of research and practice have shown that trauma has profound negative effects on an individual’s overall health (e.g., neurological, biological, psychological, social).  One of the more well-known studies, which is being used to support this lawsuit, is the Adverse Childhood Experiences ( ACEs) study. The major findings from the ACEs study show trauma can impair an individual’s social, emotional, and cognitive abilities and functioning.

But, what is complex trauma?

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN):

“The term complex trauma describes both children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature, and the wide-ranging, long-term impact of this exposure.

These events are severe and pervasive, such as abuse or profound neglect. They usually begin early in life and can disrupt many aspects of the child’s development and the very formation of a self. Since they often occur in the context of the child’s relationship with a caregiver, they interfere with the child’s ability to form a secure attachment bond. Many aspects of a child’s healthy physical and mental development rely on this primary source of safety and stability.”

It is well understood that a person’s response to complex trauma is important. Why? First, two young people can experience the same traumatic event and, for a variety of reasons, have very different responses.  Given this, sometimes adults can minimize a young person’s reaction to a traumatic event because some youth may appear more resilient than others and assume that all young people should “bounce back” in the same way. However, numerous factors influence a young person’s response such as his or her physical health, previous traumatic experiences, social and community issues, and misuse of substances. Second, in learning environments youth might have trouble learning or applying learning which could lead to frustration and behavioral problems. As described in the lawsuit, the three young people named in the lawsuit exhibited behavioral problems at school and rather than intervening, they were suspended.

What are the potential implications for schools and behavioral health as a result of this lawsuit? As readers may know, there are numerous phases to a lawsuit and it could take several years to reach a resolution – still the public relations value of the lawsuit for the advocacy community is immediate.  The educational and behavioral health workforce are already stretched in terms of capacity yet the safety and well-being of young people must take priority. One of the attorneys quoted in the case says the “cost of added services to school districts would likely be more than offset by the extra state dollars to campuses if fewer students were truant, suspended or dropped out of school.” Yet, beyond the dollars and “sense” argument, the question remains: do schools and the behavioral health professionals embedded in schools have the competency and capacity to effectively respond to these behavioral health needs over the long-term? If the answer is no, which consensus among experts in the field seems to suggest, then national initiatives are needed to train, coach, consult, and supervise school-based professionals to better identify and respond to behavioral health issues like complex trauma while being mindful of financing and sustainability (Hoagwood et. al., 2014).  Training provides the knowledge.  Ongoing coaching, consultation, and supervision provide self-efficacy and competency to identify and intervene with youth in need (Perfect & Morris, 2011).  Studies have shown that providing training plus ongoing coaching, consultation and certification improve behavioral outcomes (Novins, Green, Legha, & Aarons, 2014).

Do we wait for a verdict in this case or do we start responding now?

Some states have already established school-based health centers. However, if equal access is lawful and valued, a national model is needed with adequate financing to prevent and intervene with youth and families in all schools.

The Reclaiming Futures National Program Office (RF-NPO), in collaboration with our site partners, are responding now. More specifically, we are addressing these issues through our Conrad N. Hilton Foundation grantees who are implementing RF-Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (RF-SBIRT) in school-based settings and we have dedicated time and expertise at our annual Leadership Institute on the topic of School Based Restorative Justice programs.

Updated: June 01 2015